Wednesday, December 4, 2013


Decadence runs at the Old 505 Theatre from December 4-7 2013. By Steven Berkoff, directed by Serhat Caradee.

Decadence is one of Berkoff’s least performed plays, perhaps because it is hella difficult. Written largely in pseudo-Shakespearean verse, it is an immense undertaking for two actors. On stage the whole time, they must play two different couples: one, a wealthy, upper-class pair of adulterous lovers, and the other, a working class pair with murderous and revolutionary tendencies (or so they say). It is so, so tough – but happily, this production from A Priori Projects is a great one. Searing, scintillating, this is Berkoff done so, so well.

This particular production has a bit of a history. It began life at the Sydney Fringe Festival this year, where it took home an award in the theatre category. (I didn’t see it then, as I was overseas, but if it was as good then as it is now, then that award is well-deserved.) In March, it will tour to the Adelaide Fringe Festival. It’s playing a limited season at the Old 505 now as a fundraiser for that tour. I’m not sure if tickets are still available, but if you can’t get to the Adelaide Fringe, then you should do your absolute best to get to this in its short run. It’s worth it.

Decadence is, like so much of Berkoff’s work, preoccupied with questions of class. It lambasts the wealthy upper classes: Helen and Steve, our rich couple here, have everything. They are so consumed by their ennui all that they can do is consume more and more, grinding the faces of the poor. They tell each other stories of their decadent adventures, whether hunting or fucking or generally exploiting. They are so bored they almost seem to forget they are having a love affair: even the frisson of excitement that comes from their adultery cannot penetrate their boredom. All that is left is for them to suck more and more into their (figurative) gaping maws, as brilliantly literalised by the scene towards the end where they go to a high class restaurant and gorge themselves on food and champagne until they are sick.

Our innate sense of narrative structure makes us feel like they should be punished, but they never are. The working class couple, Les and Sybil, plot Steve’s demise, but they never actually do anything about it. Les is all bark, no bite: he certainly talks a good revolutionary game, and he is full of ideas of how to knock Steve off, from the relatively realistic through to the absolutely ridiculous, but he is nothing more than that – talk. Unlike Helen and Steve, these two fuck – all the time – but it is more out of the excitement over what they plan to do than anything else. When their plans prove to be impotent, so too quickly fades their sex lives. This is not the moral poor common in so many other works, who are exploited and downtrodden by a demonised rich, but a poor who are uncomfortably complicit in their oppression: the rich are useless, and yet the working class don’t do anything about. “I am not yet a desperate man,” Les declaims, making us wonder what a truly desperate man would look like.

This is a scorching satire of capitalism: not just the external trappings, but the internalisation of it. The team behind this production have clearly understood this and have delivered a sharp, incisive production. Serhat Caradee’s direction is deceptively simple and very effective, and Rowan McDonald and Katherine Shearer both deliver outstanding performances. (The only criticism I have is that sometimes when Shearer goes into her upper vocal registers it is hard to understand what she is saying, but this is a relatively easy fix.) This is really biting theatre, deeply political and disquieting. A Priori have put together a great production, and I hope their tour to Adelaide goes swimmingly. Highly recommended.

Sunday, December 1, 2013


Jedward played the Regal Theatre in Perth on November 23, the Palais Theatre in Melbourne on November 30, and the Enmore Theatre in Sydney on 1 December 2013. And they are JEPIC.

I did not go to this show with the intention of reviewing it. I was certainly not there in my Important Official Reviewer Capacity™ and I have absolutely no idea of how to review music. But as there were nowhere near enough people at this show as it deserved, I feel like I have to write something about it as a public service. Because if you haven’t heard Jedward, you are missing out on something. Listening to their music is like being exploded out of a volcano of joy and excitement and surfing down a wave of sparkly lava.

The sparkles are important. Watch this. I’ll wait.


If you are one of the uninitiated and are like, “um, what is this Jedward of which you speak?” I am here to help. Jedward are John and Edward Grimes, identical twins from Ireland with very tall hair. They started out when they were only 17 on Britain’s version of The X Factor, on which Simon Cowell described them as “not very good and incredibly annoying”. (To which I say, um, Simon Cowell? How about NO? How about SHUT UP? How about WHY DO YOU HATE HAPPINESS, SIMON COWELL?) They finished sixth, got picked up by a record label, and since then have released three albums: Planet Jedward, an album of covers, and Victory and Young Love, which are their own stuff.

And if you’re like, “hmmm, these guys look familiar, but I don’t watch British X Factor in account of, you know, being in Australia and all”, then you probably saw them in the Eurovision Song Contest, where they represented Ireland in 2011 and 2012. AND THEY WERE ROBBED BOTH YEARS OMG. (I heard a rumour that if they’d won selection for 2013, they would have sung Happens in the Dark. It would have been way more awesome than the bullshit entry Ireland put up this year. Silly people.)


Eurovision was where I first encountered Jedward. If you don’t know me personally, then you might not know that Eurovision is my favourite televisual event of the year, to the extent that I lock myself away for three days, sans Internet, so no one spoils the results for me. I fell in love instantly when I saw Jedward. They are everything Eurovision should be – crazy costumes, crazy hair, and incredible enthusiasm, with wacky special effects and key changes. AND SERIOUSLY THEY ARE SO HAPPY HOW COULD YOU NOT LOVE THEM. I defy anyone to listen to Waterline and not be cheered up at least fifty percent.


That is why I still love them. I don’t make a practice of going around listening to the back catalogues of Eurovision entrants unless they’re pretty damned spectacular, but Jedward are. (The other entrant I love outside of Eurovision now? Cezar the Voice, who represented Romania this year. Check him out.) Jedward’s music is like a happiness explosion. Whenever I’m in a tough spot with my thesis or I need cheering up in general, I either hit the eighties music or I crank up Jedward. They have never once failed me. Even their songs about sad things like breaking up are still incredibly cheerful – I mean, check out their latest single, Can’t Forget You. (I’m not sure if it’s actually a “single” or “song they’ve most recently made a video clip to”, but whatever.)


Perhaps unsurprisingly, while listening to Jedward is one of the best ways to lift your mood ever, actually going to one of their concerts is ELEVENTY BAZILLION TIMES BETTER. I saw them with my sister at the Enmore Theatre, and it was pathetically empty. But it was fine, because there was all the more room to dance. And dance I did. I am writing this the next day sprawled over my couch because I’m in pain from dancing too hard. All you people of Sydney that were doing things like “not being at Jedward” on Sunday night MISSED OUT, because there’s no way your evening was as fun as mine.
And you also missed out on touching their famous hair, too. (Then they brought out a can of hairspray and fixed their coiffes on stage, and it was the most gorgeous thing ever.)

Jedward played the Enmore like it was a packed out stadium. There were no support acts – just two and a half hours of these boys leaping about and doing cartwheels and belting out tunes of such spectacular cheerfulness I’m going to be smiling for at least a week. When they ran off to change costumes, they played little videos of themselves and their adventures that just... awww... bless their hearts. I adore them so much. (I would like it noted that I got 100% in the quiz in the Jedward trivia video, because who do you think you're dealing with here?) I've never seen anyone deal more good-naturedly with stage invaders, either. And one of them – I think it was Edward, but it’s hard to tell these things – was, like, totally singing to me in one of the choruses of Luminous. OMG.


Jedward’s original songs are about one third about girls, one third about being famous, and one third about outer space – sometimes about all three at the same time, sprinkled liberally with mentions of social media. They played a good mix of all three, mixed in with a bunch of covers. If there was one complaint I had, it’s that they played a few too many covers, when they could have been playing some of their INCREDIBLY PSYCHED original material, but that said, they have good taste in covers. They opened up with Icona Pop’s I Love It and it was perf. And then they launched straight into my ABSOLUTE FAVOURITE of their songs, What’s Your Number?, and I knew it was going to be a great night.


Hey girl, what’s your name? what’s your number?

Do you have a boyfriend? You look like you need one

Hey girl, it’s okay, it’s okay

Just make him your ex, then – I can be your next one!


What’s your number, girl?

LYRICAL GENIUS. This song is my ringtone. No regrets.

The crowd was about 40% teenage and tweenage girls, 40% their parents, 10% hipster dudes, and 10% Eurovision fans. (Arguably, my sister and I fit into the last category, but I would put us in the separate category of TRUE DEVOTED JEDHEADS.) And everyone had an absolute blast, perhaps no one more so than the Jedward boys themselves. They mixed up the faster numbers with slower ones – probably to give themselves a bit of a breather more than anything else, because they are energetic dancers, yo. And they played a few acoustic numbers where John pulled out his guitar, including quite a lovely rendition of Delilah, and... who am I kidding. Even their slower numbers are incredibly psyched.


Jedward will be releasing another album soon-ish, which they’re hoping will be their massive global breakthrough. Personally, I don’t know why they aren’t already huuuuuuuuuge, because their music is the most incredibly cheerful thing in the entire world. When they come back to Australia – and I’m sure they will, bless their hearts – you are a fool if you don’t go. They are hella excellent performers, the most enthusiastic dancers ever, and they have the best collection of sparkly jackets in the entire world. AND JUST LISTEN TO THEIR MUSIC IT IS SO CATCHY AND HAPPY.


Five million out of ten, boys.  

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Dying For It

Dying For It runs at the New Theatre from 21 November – 21 December 2013. By Moira Buffini, adapted from The Suicide by Nikolai Erdman, directed by Peter Talmacs.

Semoyan Semyonovich Podsekalnikov has nothing to live for. He is broke and unemployed and entirely without a purpose, living with his wife and mother in law in a rundown set of rooms. So Semoyan decides to die. What Semoyan doesn’t realise, however, is just how many people are keenly interested in his death and what that death could mean. The personal becomes the extremely political as Semoyan slowly discovers that while he has nothing to live for, he has a plethora of things he could choose to die for…

Dying For It is a really great piece of writing. Black comedy is extremely difficult, because it treads such a fine line. The greatest comedy often arises from the greatest tragedy, but it’s very easy to tip the balance too far one way or the other. In this adaptation of Nikolai Erdman’s 1928 satire The Suicide, Moira Buffini has created something rather brilliant. It is darkly funny in the best possible way: at moments laugh-out-loud hilarious, but never unconscious of the blackness of its subject matter.

New Theatre’s production of this play is largely a good one. In places, it is over-acted – perhaps director Peter Talmacs should have instructed some of his actors to rein in their performances a little, as several lacked subtlety and felt a bit one-note. But overall, it is deft and clever, not pushing Buffini’s excellent script too far into the realms of the ridiculous or wallowing in the dark political underbelly the show exposes. Farce is incredibly difficult to do well, but this production manages it nicely. I’d especially like to commend Johann Walraven’s performance as Semoyan, which is measured and terribly, horribly funny. Joel Spreadborough as Alexander Petrovich Kalabushkin and Christopher Sellers as Aristarkh Dominikovich Grand-Skubik are also highlights. The scene where Sellers’ character tells Semoyan that he needs to die for the intelligentsia of Russia is probably the best of the play – I nearly cried from laughing. In the second act, Jeannie Gee as Serafima Ilyinichna, Semoyan’s mother-in-law, also shines. Her prosaic concern over the financial benefit that she and her daughter can gain from Semoyan’s death is pitch-perfect.

The play maintains the Soviet setting of Erdman’s original script (which was written in Stalinist Russia and banned before it could be performed). The Communist context is important – for example, one character, Yegor Timofeivich (Peter Adams), is continually boasting about the People’s Award he achieved for diligence and efficiency in his job as a postman – but I don’t think the audience needs a solid grounding in Marxist theory to understand it. Any political regime could be substituted in its place, really, because the point the show makes is that for people who have no purpose and no hope of one, the greater political context is irrelevant. Not every decision is necessarily political. The individual does not have to be a microcosm of the society – something which is in itself deeply subversive. No wonder it was banned!

If this sounds too heavy to be funny for you, bear in mind that there’s also a tuba. And it brings the funny. Trust me.

While some of the performances could have been more nuanced, I really enjoyed Dying For It. It’s a farce with some serious meat behind it. You’ll laugh, you’ll think, and then you’ll laugh some more. And it’s almost worth seeing for the set alone – the work Tom Bannerman has done here is genuinely excellent. Dying For It is a great way for the New Theatre to wrap up their 2013 season, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing what they have to offer in 2014.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Cake Man

I reviewed The Cake Man (Belvoir/Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company) over at Australian Stage. Check out my thoughts here.

Carrie The Musical

I reviewed Squabbalogic's production of Carrie The Musical over at Australian Stage. You can check out what I thought here. (A little more She's All That than Carrie, sadly.) 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Friend Ship + Blue Wizard

The Tiny Stadiums Festival runs in and around Erskineville from November 13 – 23 2013. Friend Ship and Blue Wizard run at PACT.

For the next two weeks, the Tiny Stadiums festival will be taking over Erskineville. Having gone through the program, it looks like awesome fun – there are workshops, panels, site-specific art and all kinds of cool things happening which you should totally check out if you are in the area. Festival organisers Groundwork look like they’ve done an awesome job!

The festival kicked off on Thursday 14 November, and I was lucky enough to be invited along to the launch, which included two performances devised by Club Cab Sav performers Kenzie Larsen and Nick Coyle. These performances will be running a bunch of times throughout the festival. If you go along, you are in for a treat. Trust me. I had an absolutely fabulous night.

Kenzie Larsen’s Friend Ship is not, it turns out, about a bunch of friends on a ship (a misapprehension Larsen says she laboured under for an embarrassingly long time). Rather, Larsen leads us through a workshop on how to make and keep friends, something which she is qualified to do on account of being a self-taught internet scientist, having spent eighteen months living with seals, being able to read minds, and being extremely popular herself. (You guys. She is so popular.) She wants to cure your loneliness and make your life better, and if that means you have to practice your friendship skills on a pet rock, so be it.

Larsen’s show is deft, quirky, and very, very funny – and you leave with gifts! My theatre date and I now proudly sport matching friendship bracelets, which I’m sure means we passed the workshop. Larsen uses multimedia very cleverly and seamlessly (I was kind of terrified that it would screw up in the way that technology always does, but thankfully, it didn’t). It’s a very culturally specific show – there are some references in there that you might not get unless you’re a twentysomething who grew up watching New South Wales ads, but because I am both of those things, I found said references hilarious. There’s probably some room to heighten and hone a little more, but this is such a great little show. Catch it if you can. I’ll certainly be looking out for more of Kenzie Larsen’s work in the future.

…and if you get the opportunity to stay to watch Nick Coyle play an intergalactic space wizard, you should definitely do that, because his show is awesome. Blue Wizard tells the story of (surprise) the blue wizard, who comes from “a crystal planet where everyone’s gay” (something he tells us through song in his “dance of erotic greeting”) and who has travelled to earth to give the egg of friendship to the pharaoh. But he cannot find the pharaoh, and finds himself wandering in a junkyard, drinking Windex, and wondering what to do with the hatchling, which starts out as a grub-like creature he breastfeeds and calls Grubby, and which transforms into a creepy doll which he names after his boyfriend, John Quark John.

Blue Wizard is very, very weird. It’s humour in the manner of The Mighty Boosh (down to the fabulous hair). While the section before Grubby transforms into baby John Quark John drags a little and could probably use a little work, the show is otherwise very tight. What is most impressive, though, is not only how funny the show is – which it is, so much – but also how emotionally involved you get in the blue wizard’s story. He’s a totally ridiculous character who, hearing an ancient recording of Britney Spears’ Perfume, bursts into tears, but when Grubby turns into the creepy doll (want a culturally specific I-grew-up-in-the-nineties reference? baby John Quark John is a dead ringer for EC from Lift Off), you are genuinely afraid for the blue wizard’s life. And the ending! Which comes out of nowhere and yet makes total sense! I won’t spoil it for you, but seriously, if you think that there is no way you could deeply care about what happens to a gay space wizard whose only friend is a doll, you are wrong.

Coyle is a very impressive performer. This show requires him to sing and dance and operate puppets (as well as dress up as a wizard from a planet where the couture is somewhere between Legolas and He-Man), and he carries it all off. He is wonderfully charismatic on the stage. I hope he creates a sequel to this play, because I so want to know what happens to the blue wizard next. And whether he ever does get John Quark John to smell his perfume.

If the opening night is anything to go by, the Tiny Stadiums festival is going to be awesome. Go and see Friend Ship, go and see The Blue Wizard, and immerse yourself in the culture of Erskineville. I’m pretty sure it will be well worth your while.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Cristina in the Cupboard

Cristina in the Cupboard (subtlenuance) runs at the Tap Gallery from November 6 – 17 2013. Written and directed by Paul Gilchrist.

I found Cristina in the Cupboard both deeply fascinating and profoundly troubling. For the eighty five minutes of the show, I found myself mesmerised (although I should point out that this was not the experience of my theatre date, who told me afterwards she found some parts of the show very dull). However, it wasn’t mesmerising in an immersive sense. The show raised questions for me, structural and societal questions, which I don’t think it ever resolved. It made me think, and think deeply, and in the case of this particular show, I think this is potentially both good and bad.

I should point out that while Cristina in the Cupboard belongs to a kind of epic genre – it is in many ways a quest narrative, a journey to and through the underworld – it is also a small story. It is the story of one single protagonist, Cristina (Sylvia Keays), who has locked herself away in a cupboard (or is it?). Her family and friends implore her to come out, both as themselves and as characters in her own mind, but Cristina will not or cannot emerge, not until she has found the answers that she seeks.

But saying this – noting that this is a small story – there was a lot I found troubling about Cristina in the Cupboard on a political level. If the show had addressed these issues, it might have been fascinating, but to me, it didn’t seem to recognise they existed.

The political problems I had with this show revolve around gender (perhaps unsurprisingly, given that I am a feminist academic). Cristina, isolating herself from the world, both compares herself and is compared to world-renouncing sages, sannyasin figures: Jesus, Buddha, Mahavira, etc. This is fine, and I don’t have a problem with it at all, but when we’re considering questions of women and confined spaces, there is another dominant literary archetype that we cannot escape, even if we want to: the mad woman in the attic. Of course, this mad woman is confined by someone else, and Cristina has confined herself, but this is still an important reference point. Even if we think of women who renounced the world in the manner of the sannyasin, an example that immediately comes to mind is the figure of the nun bricked up in a wall, a practice constructed as a kind of divine religious madness. When thinking of women and confined spaces, we must consider that removal from society happens because women have been acting in a socially inappropriate, often anarchic way, even when they are removing themselves from society. There is a profound politics around the relationship between women and enclosed spaces.

Cristina does not think of herself as crazy, although many other characters do: her father in particular uses the word as a weapon against her, and several characters suggest bringing in a mental health professional. Cristina sees herself as a sannyasin, but no one else is prepared to see her in this way. Instead, she is a crazy woman to be dealt with (which brings us back to the mad woman in the attic). This gives us an interesting insight into gendered modes of isolation, particularly when we consider why Cristina has shut herself away from the world and why she comes out. (I won’t spoil it, but it’s quite a personal emotional reason.) Women are not given social permission to go into the desert for forty days and forty nights. They may not sit under the bodhi tree and seek enlightenment. Instead, women are conditioned to deal with their problems not through isolation, but through communication and socialisation. They are not permitted these emotionally inspired vision quests: they must feel together, as a group, and they must support other members of the group who are feeling too, whether male or female.

“Would Cristina have been treated in the same way if she were a man?” my theatre date and I discussed afterwards. While it’s hard to come up with a conclusive answer, it’s hard to believe that she would have. Men are allowed these moments of solitude in their small dark spaces, their man-caves. It is an acceptable masculine mode of feeling. I felt like a lot of the show put on Cristina in this show to emerge from the cupboard was deeply gendered, and this is never, ever addressed. The ending affirms the normative modes of feminine feeling. This in and of itself is not necessarily problematic, but it made me feel like that although Cristina might have achieved some kind of enlightenment in the cupboard, she wasn’t allowed to be a figure like Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, who considered renouncing the world, was convinced not to by Krishna, and had a new and more virtuous way of living revealed to him. Instead, it was kind of like she went to Oz: while she went on a journey and learned some important things, she worked out that home was where she wanted to be all along. There was potential for some really interesting political commentary here, and I feel like these undertones were ignored almost totally: like the show didn’t even realise its own implications.

I also had a big problem with the way female friendship was portrayed in the show as innately bitchy and competitive. If we consider that “feeling together” is the accepted mode of feminine feeling, I wasn’t surprised Cristina retreated into the cupboard if her friends were so terrible. It’s hard to tell how much of this was her perspective and how much was reflective of the friends’ actual relationship, but either way, I found it quite problematic and a very shallow look at the complexities of female friendship.

All this said, there is a lot to like in Cristina in the Cupboard. Like I said earlier, I could not look away. There are parts which are lyrically exquisite and parts which are wonderfully moving, and I’m positive I am reading way too much into it and expecting way too much from it. But at the same time, there is no escaping the political in a show like this, and I feel that on the whole, the thing I will remember most about this show is the missed opportunities.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights runs at the Phoenix Theatre in Coniston from October 16 – 26 2013. By Steen and Erifilli Davis, based on the book by Emily Bronte, directed by Anton Johannssen.

I don’t review a lot of community theatre, but there’s something about the Phoenix Theatre in Wollongong which compels me to write about it. Last time I was there, I saw what might have been the best worst production of Hamlet ever. This time, when I went along to see Wuthering Heights, I was treated to a masterclass in how not to adapt a book for the theatre. The subtitle to this production could have been Page to Stage: Don’t Do This.

Full disclosure: I know a little about adapting books for the stage. I’ve had a few adaptations staged, perhaps most notably my first effort as a teenager, Dracula at the Roo Theatre Company in Shellharbour, and Sense and Sensibility for Free Rain Theatre in Canberra, for which I was nominated for a CAT award. This isn’t to say that I’m brilliant at it or anything, but I have read and thought about it a lot, so I have some pretty strong opinions on the matter.

The first thing that needs to be understood in the process of adaptation is that what works on the page will not necessarily work on the stage. The two media are innately different, and when adapting a book, you need to distill the text, finding the key moments in the story and emphasising their theatricality. The narrative techniques you need to use are often quite different, because the way we experience these two types of text are quite different: using Wuthering Heights as an example, if you were reading the book, you probably wouldn’t sit down and consume the whole book in two hours.

(Though this production is more like three hours. Guys, don’t do that.)

When you’re adapting, you want to be faithful to the text you’re working from (unless, as I discovered ten years ago, you’re adapting Dracula, in which case most adaptors basically throw the book out the window and do whatever the hell they want). But what you absolutely cannot do – what is theatrical suicide – is faithfully reproduce huge chunks of the text onstage. It doesn’t work. Not only does copy-pasting demonstrate a remarkable lack of understanding of the text you're adapting, you are going to end up with a script totally unsuitable for theatre. What you want to do is to be faithful to the plot and the characters, insofar as that is possible, and to the spirit of the text. Where you can include parts from the original, good. But if you rely too heavily on following the book, then ninety-nine times out of a hundred you are going to end up with an epic mess where the pacing is all screwed up, the structure is incredibly weird, and it’s mind-numbingly dull. (Trust me. You should have seen the disaster that was my first draft of Sense and Sensibility.)

This production of Wuthering Heights proudly boasts that it has been approved by the Bronte Society (is that a thing? I did not know that was a thing) as a faithful adaptation of Emily Bronte’s novel. However, that does not make it good theatre. In fact, it makes it pretty bad theatre. As it stands, Bronte’s novel is not a natural fit for the stage. You have that whole story-within-a-story thing with the multiple narrators: Nelly’s story sits inside Lockwood’s one (and apart from the IT’S ME, YOUR CATHY incident immortalised by Kate Bush, Lockwood’s story is hella boring). Then you have that last third or so of the book where it’s all about Earnshaws, Lintons and Heathcliffs Generation Two: Electric Boogaloo, and how Heathcliff is super mean to them all. And then there’s the fact that Emily Bronte SHATTERS the show don’t tell rule. She mostly pulls it off, but having people tell other people about way more interesting stuff that happened elsewhere is violently anti-theatrical. We want to see the interesting stuff first hand! That’s part of the fun of theatre!

Because of its slavish (a word, I might add, that the actors do not seem to know how to pronounce – it does not rhyme with “lavish”) adherence to Bronte’s text, this adaptation by Phoenix Theatre’s artistic director Steen and his collaborator Erifilli Davis falls flat on its face. It is way too long, glosses over the most interesting parts, keeps most of the boring bits in, and cripples itself in its effort to maintain the double narrator conceit present in the book. Is it faithful? Yes, mostly. Is it theatrically interesting? Not really. Because here’s a little secret about Wuthering Heights: no one cares about Mr Lockwood. No one really cares about Nelly. There’s a reason the young Cathy/Linton/Hareton triangle is largely excised from most adaptations, and even when it’s not, no one – NO ONE – wants to focus on their dramarama for very long (AND DEFINITELY FOR NOT MORE THAN AN HOUR).

What people care about and remember from Wuthering Heights is the towering, obsessive, almost demonic love of Catherine and Heathcliff, and if that’s not the centre of your adaptation, then you’ve got something wrong. (Even Heathcliff: The Musical starring Cliff Richard managed to do this, although Catherine did not figure in my favourite part, where Heathcliff sailed around the world exploiting the people of Africa, India, China, and the Middle East, making me utter the phrase, “I want to write a post-colonial critique of this,” for the first and only time in my life.)

When I think back on this production, I won’t remember Cathy and Heathcliff’s relationship. It was pretty bland, insofar as a relationship which includes phrases like, “I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!” can be bland. There are things I will remember, like the fact most of Heathcliff’s lines appeared to be delivered via CAPSLOCK OF RAGE and that he greeted a surprising amount of people by pushing them over. I will remember that there were inexplicably three different actresses playing Nelly Dean. I will remember that it had more false endings than the third Lord of the Rings movie. I will remember Heathcliff dying in a pose that looked like he died in the middle of either an epic game of shadow puppets or of a lobster impersonation. I will remember that Hareton looked like he was about to audition to be in Fall Out Boy and was apparently completely incapable of doing up his shirt until he began how to learn how to read (when he presumably read A Beginner’s Guide To Buttons). And, more seriously, I will remember some of the actors, because I think there’s some talent in this cast.

But what I will remember most of all is not the delicious Wuthering Heights-ishness of it all, and that makes me sad. I’ll remember what a good example it was of how not to adapt a text for the stage, and the pitfalls we can fall into when we try too hard to be “faithful”. 

(Although thinking about this show did make me realise that Avril Lavigne's Sk8er Boi is totally a modern interpretation of Wuthering Heights. Think about it.)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Love Field

Love Field (bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company) runs at the Tap Gallery in Sydney from October 24 – November 2. By Ron Elisha, directed by Michael Dean.

It was the shot heard around the world. John F Kennedy slumped in the car next to his wife Jacqueline, whose designer clothes were suddenly covered in blood and viscera. Only hours later, as the world reeled, his deputy Lyndon Baines Johnson would be sworn in as the 36th President of the United States of America.

The premise behind Love Field is a relatively simple one: what happened on Air Force One between Jacqueline Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson as they flew back to Washington together with JFK’s body? What did they say? What could they say to each other? This sounds like a fascinating conversation – and for brief period during the hour-long show, it is – but sadly, the execution in this play is sadly lacking. Love Field feels like the playwright read both their Wikipedia pages and then wrote Jackie Kennedy/LBJ shipper fan fiction.

This is not to say that there is an obligation for the conversation to be as close as historically accurate as possible (we cannot know, after all, what happened between these two). I’d go so far as to say that there’s not even an obligation to be emotionally accurate, if you’re trying to tell a story bigger than the two people involved in it – which, when there is a nation involved, you think you might be. But a lot of this show felt like, “oooh, here is this fact about one of the characters! how can I possibly shoehorn this in?” And it didn’t feel like it was trying to tell a bigger story than the two characters either, despite the constant references to the office of president. (In the program, playwright Ron Elisha writes that the play is a part of a triptych about the male psyche. I can’t say that I saw much of that in evidence.) It was about these two people on this plane in this extraordinary situation, and what they said to each other. Which leads us back to the question of emotional accuracy: if you are going to tell a small story about two people, even if that story has global consequences, then it needs to be emotionally believable.

bAKEHOUSE are lucky enough to have two very, very fine actors cast in this piece: Ben Wood as Lyndon Johnson and Lizzie Schebesta as Jackie Kennedy. (Schebesta is, to my mind, one of the finest actresses working onstage in Sydney today.) They try to chart the emotional journey of these two characters in a believable way. They really do. And to an extent, they succeed. You feel for LBJ, the big boy from the South who has spent his whole political life characterised as a hick and who feels terrible about how excited he is to be President. You feel for Jackie, the confused widow who is desperately grieving for her husband and simultaneously enraged at him for his philandering. But they are hampered by a script that takes them into some really, really bizarre and confusing places, not allowing for real organic emotional development.

I think the problem with the script is essentially that it can’t decide what it wants to be or what it wants to do. One of the key questions I think should always be asked when putting on a show is, “why this play? why here, and why now?” I can’t answer any of those questions when it comes to Love Field. It’s not really a political play, but it’s not really a personal one either. It sits uneasily between these two poles in a kind of theatrical no man’s land. It didn’t really make me think, and it didn’t really make me feel that much either – full credit to the actors that it made me feel as much as it did. I think that, with some redrafting and workshopping and focusing, there could be a script worthy of Schebesta and Wood. Love Field, in its current form, is not that script.


I reviewed Compass at Australian Theatre for Young People over at Australian Stage. You can check out what I thought here. (Spoilers: I thought it was clever, funny, thought-provoking theatre for kids.)

Friday, October 18, 2013

Kids Killing Kids

So I reviewed this show over on Australian Stage, and you can read all my thoughts on it there. (Spoilers – I thought it was remarkable.) But there was one point in it that I wanted to expand and riff on a little, because it touches on my own academic area (extremely tangentially, but still).

I’m fascinated by the process of reading/watching/consuming a text in general, and what that means. There’s this assumption you get a lot with popular texts that the readers (term used for ease, though obviously this includes viewers and other consumers) blindly imbibe meaning and mimic the text. The obvious rebuttal to this is the existence of fan culture, which by definition demonstrates an active, critical, and imaginative engagement with a text. It has been argued that fan practice is largely driven by three things:

1)      The symbolic richness of the text

2)      The inherent limitations of the text

3)      The degree to which the text can be appropriated and/or reconstructed by the reader. (Lanier & Schau, 2007, 327)

The fact that Battalia Royale garnered such a huge fan following is something I find completely fascinating, because it is just not something you see in theatre at all. I think this is often to do with the ephemerality of theatre, which speaks to both the second and third points on the list above. The transmedia aspects of Battalia Royale, which had a longer life than the show itself, probably mitigated this (in this sense, it would be interesting to look at its fan practices alongside something like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, or Such Tweet Sorrow, the all-Twitter production of Romeo and Juliet that Mudlark and the RSC did a few years ago). But what is also fascinating – and what the academic in me would love to know more about – is how those who wanted the show shut down conceptualised the fan community. There’s a tendency to treat fans of popular texts as if their reactions are uniform and banal, but the diversity and creativity of fandom belies this. To borrow a phrase, “...the community of fans creates a communal (albeit contentious and contradictory) interpretation in which a large number of potential meanings, directions, and outcomes co-reside” (Hellekson & Busse, 2006, 4). I can understand how seeing audiences cheering at the murder of the high school students is deeply, incredibly, viscerally disturbing – but how is this reconciled with the creative impulse of fan culture, which seeks to constantly renegotiate meaning?

I don’t have any answers to these question – this is very much on the fringe of my area of academic expertise – but these are issues I find so intriguing. There’s an argument that mass culture and popular culture are different entities, mass culture characterised by passive acceptance of a text and its intended meaning and popular culture characterised by active appropriate and reinterpretation, transforming meaning and usage (Lanier & Schau 325). I’m not especially enamoured of this distinction – I don’t think “mass culture” in this sense actually exists – but when thinking about Battalia Royale, it’s quite interesting. Some critics of the show seem to have pigeonholed it in this “mass culture” box, worrying that the audience will blindly imbibe it. The presence of such an active fandom shows, however, that it is clearly “popular culture”: any “intended” meaning it might have had was being constantly renegotiated, both within the fan culture and night after night in performance. I found it so fascinating that the writers were consistently being asked what the political context of the show was, when perhaps that question might have been asked more fruitfully of the fans. Just because an author intends to politicise a text, does not mean that the reader will read it politically, and by the same logic, even if an author intends no political meaning, the reader may well find one – and Battalia Royale seems to have been a text which resonated on a political as well as personal level.

This has all been a very long-winded way of saying that I found the sections of Kids Killing Kids dealing with fan culture absolutely fascinating. The way people read, consume, and use texts is so, so interesting – and idiosyncratic, something which is regularly glossed over and which is one of my greatest sources of academic annoyance. If this show ever gets a second season, I would love to hear more from people who saw Battalia Royale as to how the show affected them.

Thursday, October 17, 2013


I reviewed Hamlet (for the third time this year!) at Belvoir St. And it was absolutely incredible. You can read what I thought here at Australian Stage.

(And if you want to know what I thought of my first two Hamlets this year, here you go: Hamlet, A History and Kupenga Kwa Hamlet.)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Hay Fever

Hay Fever runs at the New Theatre from 10 October – 2 November 2013. By Noel Coward, directed by Rosane McNamara.

When I was in London recently, I was lucky enough to catch one of the final performances of Private Lives at the Gielgud Theatre in the West End, starring Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor. It was the most wonderfully enjoyable show: fizzy and frothy and funny and just gorgeous. When I was thinking about it afterwards, I realised that it was not really that substantial: Private Lives deals with love in some interesting ways, as I discussed in my review of the Belvoir production of the same show last year, but overall, it’s not going to be the show that changes your life, you know? But that doesn’t matter. It is what it is, and this particular production was like a glass of champagne – wonderful and crisp and light and leaving you feeling a bit merry for quite a while afterwards. It was the kind of show that went straight to your head.

What it also was – or, at least, felt like – was effortless. And that is where this production of Hay Fever at the New Theatre falls down. I don’t want to compare this show to the high-profile, high-budget one I saw in the West End – that would be totally unfair – but on this point, I think it’s illustrative. When you can feel the cast trying oh-so-hard? when the wheels are showing? when you can see the sweat beneath the sparkle? Comedy – especially champagne comedies like Coward’s – do not work so well.

Comedy is notorious for being one of the most difficult of the dramatic arts, and this need for effortlessness is, I think, one of the reasons why. Wit isn’t as witty when you can see the witty one working at it. And that is what happens in this production of Hay Fever: it’s funny, but it’s laborious. Coward’s script is so brilliant that it’s still a terribly enjoyable couple of hours at the theatre, but it lacks the fizz and the froth that it really should have.

This is particularly true of the first act. The scenes where the Bliss family – mother Judith (Alice Livingstone), father David (James Bean), son Simon (David Halgren), and daughter Sorell (Jorja Brain) – are talking together before their guests arrive feel like really hard work. The words and the jokes were there, but they didn’t quite make it to the level of “witty banter”. The actors all felt a little uneasy in their skins, especially the younger two. The timing wasn’t quite right (although I should note that this problem was mitigated somewhat as the show progressed). It was still funny, but it was also a bit awkward – especially because I think some of the cast were struggling a little bit with their accents.

The second and the third act pick up a lot. I’m not sure whether the actors managed to get their groove back after a flat start or whether this is a larger problem, but it certainly feels like a different show after interval. The greater stage time allocated to the Bliss family’s houseguests is a big part of this – everything suddenly becomes a lot snappier when the characters are interacting one on one. I’d like to especially commend Tess Haubrich as Myra Arundel, who was fantastic the whole way through the show. She absolutely owned her role and lit up the stage whenever she was on it.

If you go and see this production, I think it would be pretty hard not to enjoy it. It’s difficult not to enjoy Coward, even when you can see the cogs turning. With some tighter direction and some snappier, punchier interaction – and maybe a week’s extra rehearsal? – I think this could be a really great show. As it is, it’s good fun, but it’s not quite champagne.


Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Floating World

I reviewed The Floating World at Griffin Theatre over at Australian Stage. You can check out what I thought here. (Spoilers: the show is spectacular.)

Friday, September 27, 2013

A Midsummer Night's Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Michael Grandage Company) runs at the Noel Coward Theatre on the West End from September 7 – November 16 2013. By William Shakespeare, directed by Michael Grandage.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is arguably Shakespeare’s fluffiest play. It’s insubstantial, like fairy floss – glimmering gossamer strung together by a thin plot and some good jokes. The Michael Grandage Company’s production of this at the Noel Coward Theatre on the West End beautifully realises the play’s dreamlike qualities. The scenes with the fairies are gorgeous. But I can’t help wondering whether the way they’ve treated the human characters exposes some darknesses that maybe should be left uncovered.

We all know the plot. The bit I’m especially interested in here is the quartet of four human lovers, Hermia (Susannah Fielding), Helena (Katherine Kingsley), Lysander (Sam Swainsbury), and Demetrius (Stefano Braschi). Lysander loves Hermia. Hermia loves Lysander. But Demetrius also loves Hermia (and has her father’s blessing to marry her), despite the fact that he’s basically being stalked by another woman, Helena. There’s some wacky shenanigans in the woods on a midsummer’s night where Demetrius and Lysander find them both magically compelled to love Helena, leaving Hermia totally bereft, but then eventually Lysander is cured and everyone pairs up and lives happily ever after blissful monogamy. Right? Right.

The bit that worries me isn’t so much that Demetrius is forced to love Helena, his personality essentially changed, and no one really seems to care. (I mean, obviously this is problematic, but treating this text too seriously will leave you in a world of pain.) The problem I have is the way that this particular production seems to equate love and sex. It starts off with Helena. In her pursuit of Demetrius, she tears a lot of her clothes off, as well as many of his, totally against his will. Similarly, when Lysander falls in love with Helena, he starts stripping, and spends nearly half the show with an undone belt buckle. And then, depending on who is in love with whom at that present moment, everyone chases each other round the stage like Pan chasing nymphs. With scary Pan-level aggression.

Basically, it’s really, really rapey, and the fact that it’s played for laughs makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Love and sex are not, I would contend, the same thing in this play. Sure, this is a “sexy” play, an aspect often emphasised in performance, but the portrayal of love in this play is, I would argue, more about idealisation than sexualisation. The one overt sexual overture we have is when Lysander wants to sleep beside Hermia in the wood. She turns him down pretty firmly and he takes it without much sulking. This is a couple in love. Why, then, would the love-juice turn them into sex maniacs? I’d argue that it’s not only disquieting, but not a particularly sophisticated reading of the text either, even if it does lead to some moments of slapstick humour.

What this production does do well, however, are the fairies. The fact that they’re continually smoking spliffs and getting high made me laugh – in many ways, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a drug trip of a play, as well as being preoccupied with the use of “magical” potions itself. Sheridan Smith is lovely as Titania, and her scenes with David Walliams’ Bottom are fabulous. Gavin Fowler as Puck is wonderfully impish, and the whole chorus of fairies are gossamer as could be desired. And the show belongs, undoubtedly, to Pádraic Delaney as Oberon, who prowls around the stage with a wonderfully sexy mixture of menace, magic, and mischief. He’s like Richard Armitage playing a David Bowie-esque Goblin King, and it totally works.

And of course, I should mention the show’s celebrity factor. David Walliams is very funny as Bottom. The way he plays his utter self-righteousness and narcissism is pinpoint accurate, and the scene at the end where the Mechanicals do their play? Screamingly funny.

This is a really, really watchable production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The aesthetic – that playful, sexy magic it possesses – is certainly realised. I just really wish a little more consideration had been put into the way “love” and “sex” were figured, particularly when it came to the humans. Maybe it would mean a few moments of physical comedy were lost, but when the alternative is a river of disquiet pulsing below the surface? I’d suggest that’s a worthy trade.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Pride

The Pride plays at Trafalgar Studios in London from August 8 – November 9. By Alexi Kaye Campbell, directed by Jamie Lloyd.

So if you’re thinking to yourself, “wow, Jodi really hasn’t reviewed very much stuff this month, especially considering last year during the Sydney Fringe she was routinely reviewing three shows a night – I wonder what’s going on there?” let me explain: I’m overseas! I’m in the UK doing academic things, and so sadly have missed the entire Sydney Fringe (as well as the Sydney mainstage shows for the month of September). But I have been seeing some things in the UK, and when I see things, I write about them, so here goes.

A good friend of mine brought me along to see The Pride, and helpfully explained to me the background of the company. Young wunderkind director Jamie Lloyd has engaged the (relatively small, by West End standards) space at the Trafalgar Studios for a whole season – the ‘Trafalgar Transformed’ season – in an effort to enliven an area in danger of being drowned by musicals. The Pride follows his revival of Macbeth (starring James McAvoy) and The Hothouse (starring Simon Russell Beale), and has its own star drawcard in Hayley Atwell. It is a revival – if you can call a play that first went on in 2008 a “revival” – of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s play, which first played at the Royal Court.

To describe the problem I had with this play, I must first briefly describe the plot. There are two separate stories woven together here: one, of Philip (Harry Hadden-Paton) and Sylvia (Atwell), a married couple in the 1950s, and Sylvia’s colleague and collaborator Oliver (Al Weaver). Weaver is quietly gay in an era where this could lead to prosecution under “gross indecency” laws, and Philip is horrified at the attraction he has towards him. The second story includes the same triangle, but it is set in the present day. Weaver’s Oliver has an addiction to anonymous sex and being dominated (in one especially memorable scene, he hires a rent boy whom he asks to dress as a Nazi), which has ruined his relationship with his ex Philip. His only emotional support is his friend Sylvia, to whom he clings far too tightly for it to be healthy.

On their own, there is nothing wrong with either of these stories. Both are engaging – enthralling, even, in some moments – and independently, would make awesome plays. However, when you read them together, read them against each other, some really problematic things begin to bubble to the surface. The parallels have implications that I really don’t think are intended. The most obvious of these is locating the 1950s social imperative for gay men to be closeted against the modern Oliver’s promiscuity. The blurb for the show says that “societal repression gives way to self-deception”, but... why? Why must the gay man who was trapped by his society in the 1950s be trapped by his own mind in the modern period? The modern Oliver is clearly meant to be portrayed as mentally ill, and that seems to suggest that the 50s Oliver would also be that way if he wasn’t socially compelled to be repressed. Which leads to a very troubling place. So...

The other consequence of the parallel stories is Atwell’s character, Sylvia: specifically, that she doesn’t get to have much of a character. Despite the fact she has star billing, she seems to exist only to provide the role of emotional support. This seems to be especially true of the 1950s Sylvia, who behaves very strangely at times – just once, I wanted her to get angry, but she is entirely selfless. You’d think that if your husband slept with someone else, you’d be pretty angry no matter who it was, but she is disarmingly Zen about the whole thing: a little sad, but not much beyond that. Similarly, modern day Sylvia is defined almost entirely by her friendship with Oliver. Her strongest moments are when she is torn between being his friend and her new relationship with Italian boyfriend Mario, but the fact that said boyfriend is never seen onstage is, I think, telling. This character is underwritten and in many ways, sacrificed to the narrative.

I actually quite enjoyed The Pride, although it might not sound like it from this review. Lloyd is obviously a great director. Playwright Campbell excels in writing vignettes, something which he has turned to his advantage in this picaresque play. But I feel like some of the implications have really not been thought through all the way. In the curtain call, the actors come out with signs that say, “To Russia, with love”. This is an awesome sentiment, but this play isn’t exactly an anti-homophobic call to arms. Obviously, this is not to say that the play is homophobic. I don’t think it is, at all. Nor should any non-homophobic depiction of gay characters have to be some great activist call: theatre should and needs to be more complex and nuanced than a for/against binary. But considering the problematic implications of some of the story parallels, the “To Russia, with love” signs seemed a little bit... I’m not even sure how to phrase it. Incongruous?

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Empire: Terror on the High Seas

Empire: Terror on the High Seas (Tamarama Rock Surfers) runs from September 4-28 2013 at the Bondi Pavilion. By Toby Schmitz, directed by Leland Kean.

There is a lot that is very interesting about Empire: Terror on the High Seas. It is a play with a lot of layers, a lot of nuances, a lot of complexities. Story and history are stacked together here, narratives of colonialism and aestheticism running parallel to the gory murder mystery that drives the plot. It has the potential to be fascinating. Sadly, it isn’t. It’s bloated and bombastic, the interesting moments and scenes buried underneath the weight of so much stuff, leaving the play to collapse under its own weight.

This really bummed me out, because I enjoyed I want to sleep with Tom Stoppard from the same creative team very much last year, and I had high hopes for this one. Anyone who’s read my blog on even a semi-regular basis will also know how much I love mystery and horror on the stage, so I was doubly pumped. The premise is full of fun: a murder mystery on board a ship? in the 1920s? Yes please. That sounds awesome. But the premise is misleading. Empire is obviously intended to be much more than an episode of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on steroids. This is also more than fine, but what results is a colossus of a show, trying to do way way too much, and yet strangely at the same time, not that much at all.

The best way I can think of is to describe this as a kind of 1920s episode of The Mole. You’re in a situation with set limitations (here, the confined space of a ship), and you know someone on board with you is the eponymous mole – in this case, a serial killer. People keep getting eliminated (killed), narrowing the number of suspects while ratcheting up the tension. Actually, let me revise this comparison. The first act of Empire is like a 1920s super-murder-y episode of The Mole. But imagine if you were watching The Mole and it was revealed who the mole was halfway through the season? The dramatic tension would deflate immediately, right? In Empire, the murderer is revealed to the audience not in the traditional Agatha Christie-style denouement, where all the suspects are gathered while the detective cracks the case wiiiiiiiiide open in an epic soliloquy, but at the end of the first act (and to be honest, it’s not that hard to work it out before then). This leaves the second act floundering with nowhere really to go. There’s a secondary plotline about a mysterious illness affecting several of the passengers on board, but to be honest, it’s pretty weaksauce. It becomes incredibly frustrating, as you wonder why these people are so dumb they can’t work out who the killer is.

I appreciate that playwright Toby Schmitz is trying to subvert the tropes of the genre here, and in some respects, it’s quite cool. I would talk more about this, but it would be a bit of a dead giveaway (pun obviously intended) as to who the killer is. Suffice it to say that there is an aesthetic reason to do with an artistic movement, and the way the show interacts with it is pretty clever. But while it might work thematically, generically...? not so much. At interval, I really wasn’t sure where the show would go after unmasking the murderer so soon. Could it be a false reveal? Were there two murderers? Was there going to be some big twist? Turns out... no. Dramatic irony and gore was just not enough to carry the second act.

This tension between theme and genre is one that underpins the whole show. I feel like Empire sacrificed form for style, but you can’t really have the latter without the former. There are a lot of ideas contained within the framework of the murder mystery here – for example, the image of the human zoo, which some of the passengers discuss, is neatly mirrored by the plight of the characters, caged in their staterooms in the larger, inescapable cage of the ship. The chaos and anarchy that spreads as the killer begins to claim more and more victims mimics the crumbling of empire. The spectre of World War I lurks beneath the conversations of the 1920s bright young things, who are largely unaware not only of the effect it had, but the effect it is still having on their society. But all this cleverness is wasted when the story isn’t engaging. It’s hard to care about these nuances when you don’t really care about the characters. It’s hard to appreciate the wide-ranging impact of history on the events of the show when said events are not that interesting. What might have seemed like interesting detail becomes pontificating. You can’t appreciate the beauty of the single tree, because the whole forest is drowning it out.

I would like to commend the cast, who do a good job with some very tough material. And if you like gore on stage (I do, a lot), then there are some moments which you will really enjoy. But for me, Empire: Terror on the High Seas just did not work. Sailing in at just under three hours, it is much too long, especially considering that the tension bleeds out of it in the second half as surely as if the show itself were one of the killer’s victims. Thematically, it’s an interesting play, but this alone cannot make a good show. I wanted to like this so much, and I just couldn’t.

Dead Man Brake

I reviewed Dead Man Brake at Merrigong over at Australian Stage. Have a look at what I thought here.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Miss Julie

I reviewed Miss Julie at Belvoir St over at Australian Stage. Check out what I thought here. (Spoilers: it's amazing.)

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice (Sydney Shakespeare Company) plays at the Tap Gallery from August 7-24 2013. By William Shakespeare, directed by Stephen Hopley.

Sydney Shakespeare Company’s production of The Merchant of Venice is a clean, clever production of Shakespeare’s play. It adroitly handles all the multifarious threads of the narrative without it ever seeming laborious. It is deftly directed, beautifully performed, and all in all, a thoroughly enjoyable piece of theatre.

There is one glaring problem with The Merchant of Venice as a play with which all modern productions must deal: it is deeply, and undeniably, racist. Shylock, the Jewish banker who is arguably the play’s most memorable character, played here with aplomb by Mark Lee, is bullied, derided, and discriminated against by his peers in commerce. When Antonio (Anthony Campanella), the merchant of the play’s title, comes to him to borrow money, Shylock cannot resist exacting a sinister bond: if Antonio forfeits, then Shylock will claim a pound of his flesh. Various accidents of fate mean that Antonio cannot, in fact, pay his debt, and Shylock, whose daughter Jessica (Renaye Loryman) has recently been stolen away by Christian suitor Lorenzo (Richard Hilliar), is not inclined to be merciful. The cleverness of gender-bending Portia (Lizzie Schebesta, in a truly excellent performance) means that Shylock eventually forfeits both his money and the pound of flesh, as well as his entire fortune, and he leaves the stage a wreck of a man, jeered at by those who have bested him. (I know this counts as spoilers, but come on – we all know the plot of The Merchant of Venice by now, right? I mean, it’s been around since 1596, so we should all have had ample time to catch up.)

It is to this production’s credit that Shylock’s exit and his treatment at the hands of the plays other characters more generally is deeply, deeply uncomfortable. There is no escaping the fact that anti-Semitism is alive and well and kicking in this play: this cannot be fought. It can only be problematised, and this production of The Merchant of Venice does a great job of it. We sympathise with Shylock not only through his famous “if you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech, but even at the play’s denouement, when he is prepared to cut out Antonio’s heart. We understand his motivations: just how upset he is not only by his daughter’s betrayal, but by the years of abuse that have been heaped upon him. This is a triumph of performance – Mark Lee does a fantastic job – but perhaps moreso of direction. It is evident that director Stephen Hopley has thought deeply about how to tread in this area, and the result is highly commendable.

This extends beyond the Shylock plot to the whole show. Dramaturgically, this production is very strong. Hopley’s cut of the script is neat and elegant – it lingers perhaps a little too much in the clowning of Lancelot Job (played by Hopley), and is a little slow to start, but finds it feet very quickly. It is a precise and assured adaptation, with just the right amount of irreverence. It is important to remember, amidst all these deep issues surounding the play’s racist politics, that it is a comedy, and that really shines through here. While it has gravity where gravity is needed, it is in other ways screamingly funny.

This is especially of true of the plot involving Portia – more particularly, the scenes where her suitors come and are asked to sue for her hand by choosing a casket (of gold, of silver, or of lead) to unlock. The scene where Craig Annis’s Fabio-esque Prince of Arragon attempts to win her hand is agonisingly hilarious. I cannot speak highly enough of Lizzie Schebesta’s performance as Portia, not just in this scene, but in the whole show. Ably backed by Rosanna Easton as Nerissa, she has both humour and gravitas. Her scenes with Bassanio (Alex Nicholas) are wonderfully romantic, and the poise and demeanour with which she handles the legal scenes at the end are remarkable. Schebesta’s performance is probably the best I’ve seen in any Shakespeare play in 2013 (and I’ve seen A LOT of Shakespeare this year).

In case it isn’t already glaringly obvious, I really, really liked this production. It takes a little while to really kick into gear – don’t expect the opening ten minutes or so to blow you away – but once Schebesta as Portia enters the picture, it really catches alight. It’s perhaps not the most adventurous production of Shakespeare ever, but it is clever, adept, and thoroughly enjoyable. Make sure you go and see it.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Two Rooms

Two Rooms (Ledlight Theatre Company) runs at the Tap Gallery from July 19 – August 4. By Lee Blessing, directed by Duncan Maurice.

Two Rooms is an inconsistent but overall very intriguing piece of theatre. The tiny space at the Tap Gallery is perfect for it. With some firmer direction, I think this could be an absolute bombshell of a play. As it is, it still packs a punch.

The show follows the story of Michael (Nick Dale) and his wife Lainie (Laura Huxley), who exist in two separate rooms. Michael is a political prisoner in Beirut, and Lainie has recreated a room that she imagines is like his cell in her suburban home. This is where she goes to be close to him: like him, she is, in a way, incarcerated. It is also this room which draws unwanted publicity to her when she is visited by reporter Walker (Eli King), much to the dismay of Ellen (Coralie Bywater), the government liaison assigned to her husband’s case. The show explores questions of power and personhood: is it acceptable to place international policy over a human life? how are we to accept it when our loved ones become pawns in a political game? and what are we prepared to do, to risk, to get them back?

Two Rooms begins slowly, and it has uneven pace throughout. The strongest parts of the show are the interactions between characters, especially between Lainie and Walker. Huxley and King deliver strong performances here: their relationship is complex, nuanced, and layered. The show came alight whenever they were on stage together. Where the show descends into monologue, however, it drags. I can’t quite put my finger on the problem here – perhaps the staging is not dynamic enough? perhaps it is a flaw in the writing or the performances? In any case, if these sections were substantially trimmed, I think it would be a better show. At the moment, it feels like there is more fat that meat here. Nick Dale as Michael suffers particularly in this respect, because he has no one with whom to interact. His character really hits his stride at the end of the first act, when he visits Lainie in a dream. Before this point, I was wondering whether the show might have been better if his character wasn’t actually seen, but I revised my opinion. It was necessary to put a human face on him, in contrast to the government in the show, who failed to adequately realise his humanity.

I love the staging of this show, although I think director Duncan Maurice could have been a little more decisive in the blocking. From the moment you are handed a torch to navigate the dark corridor to the black space of the Tap theatre, where the walls are covered in black plastic sheeting, you are immersed in the atmosphere of the play. The set is wonderfully evocative, from the sparse expanse that represents Lainie’s room to the tiny corner occupied by Michael. Sand dribbles down on him from a bag suspended over his head, grains trickling like sands in an hourglass, time that will eventually run out.

If Two Rooms had been trimmed a little – perhaps clocking in at an hour and a bit sans interval, instead of at the two hours with interval it currently runs – it might have been absolutely fantastic. As it is, it’s patchy: excellent in places, but dragging unduly in others. Overall, the good outweighs the bad, and I hope Ledlight Theatre take some lessons from this into their next show. I’m certainly interested to see what they produce next.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet (Impulse Theatre) runs at the King St Theatre from July 29 – August 24. By William Shakespeare, directed by Stephen Wallace.

There’s a certain cadence that actors take with Shakespeare when they don’t quite understand what they’re saying. It goes like this: fast-fast-super-fast-slow-BUT-LOUD-BECAUSE-THIS-BIT-IS-IMPORTANT-speedy-speedy-laugh-fast-slow-loud-pause-LOUD. Often it is accompanied by a pelvic thrust or some other crude joke, because the memo has been got that Shakespeare has dirty bits.

I would like to be clear that a) this doesn’t happen all the time in Impulse Theatre’s production of Romeo and Juliet, although it certainly does occur a lot of the time, and b) it’s not necessarily the actors’ fault when it does happen. Iambic pentameter has a rhythm that will catch you, and that cadence I outlined above is the way it seems to trap modern readers. Where the problem lies in this production is in the direction. There are a lot of issues in this show, and I think this is where most of them stem from.

This production is set during the 2005 Cronulla riots. (It should be noted that this is not the first production of Romeo and Juliet to use this setting – Bell Shakespeare did it in 2006. Similarly, it was not that good.) The Capulets are Muslim Lebanese, while the Montagues are white Australian, several wearing racist shirts (“no Lebs”) and/or Australian flags. Against this racially and religiously charged backdrop, Romeo and Juliet fall in love.

There are the ingredients for a good show in this production. The context gives a very clear motivation for the animosity between the Montagues and the Capulets, although the production doesn’t really do more than pay it lip service. It is certainly difficult to explicate a show’s setting without actually changing the text, but here? It very much felt like there were costumes and not much else. It didn’t feel like the implications of the setting were adequately thought through. This extended from some overarching problems, to more basic logical ones – for example, given that her identity was clearly telegraphed by her costume, how did Romeo not realise Juliet was a Capulet until she told him? why did Juliet’s parents send her to the friar to be shrived, considering that is a deeply Christian ritual? The way the script was interpreted might have made sense on the surface, but as soon as you began to penetrate a little deeper, problems appear. It needed a much stronger dramaturgical hand.

Similarly, the show needed a much tighter cut. There were long scenes where I found myself completely bored. Shakespeare’s script includes scenes specifically written for an audience with a limited view of the stage, who needed to be told what was going on because they could not see it. These should be the first scenes to be cut in a modern interpretation, and probably not the last. At more than two and a half hours long, this production drags. It needs to be at least half an hour shorter if it is to really pack a punch and engage audiences. Again, this is a problem with direction: a clearer vision would have made for a better cut, as well as more effective interpretation.

There are clearly some talented actors in Romeo and Juliet, even if this production does not show their talents to their fullest effect. As Romeo and Juliet, Dan Webber and Rainee Lyleson did not have especially good chemistry, but worked well individually. I especially enjoyed Lyleson’s interpretation of Juliet, which highlighted her youth and impetuosity. It was a good performance, and with tighter direction, it could have been a great one: a problem which extends to the entire show.

The other issue I want to mention is the lighting. I don’t normally really notice the technical aspects of shows unless they are either a) spectacular, or b) distractingly bad. Sadly, this show fell into the latter category. The lights changing every three lines, as well as the constant reversion to blackout between scenes, was distracting and unnecessary. A little restraint would have gone a long way here.

This is a principle that could have applied to the whole show. Romeo and Juliet felt like the lights: constantly shifting, unfocused, and changing for no apparent reason at all. I felt like it was a show that did not have a grasp on itself. It didn’t understand what it was saying. The elements for a good show were there, but it needed a much clearer vision, and a much firmer hand. It’s not the worst production of Romeo and Juliet I’ve seen this year (that honour belongs to this show), but this is not really a compliment. Shakespeare should not drag like this, nor should it seem this ill-thought out. With some stronger dramaturgy and direction, this might have been excellent, but sadly, it falls far short of this mark.