Friday, March 22, 2013


Sundowner runs at Merrigong Theatre Company from March 19-23, and then embarks on a national tour. By David Denborough, directed by Kate Denborough.

A couple of years ago, when I was still living and working in Canberra, I passed by a bookshop on my way home from work. Every day, I would stop and look at the sale table before going on my way. On this one particular day, I picked up a picture book and idly flicked through it. The book was My Gran’s Different by Sue Lawson. It’s about a boy and his relationship with his grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s disease. The last line is one I will always remember (though I might have paraphrased it a bit here). ‘My gran’s different. She doesn’t remember who she is. But that’s okay, because I remember who she is.’

Maybe I was having a particularly bad or emotional day that day – I don’t remember. What I do remember is that that book struck me like a punch to the heart. I had to rush back to my office two blocks away and barricade myself in the bathroom, ugly crying. Something about it just really, really got me.

Sadly, I cannot say the same thing for Sundowner. It clearly borrows from Lawson’s book – it has that same last line which got me so hard – but instead of fleeing sobbing to the bathroom, Sundowner kind of left me cold. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to have the same kind of emotional response to it, and that’s okay. There’s no rule that every text about something like this has to be deeply, gut-wrenchingly emotional. However, I feel like I didn’t come away with much of an emotional response of any kind.

I don’t think has anything to do with the performances. This is superb physical theatre: I want to be very clear on this point. Technically, this is a superior show. The dancing is incredible and Helen Morse’s performance as dementia sufferer Peggy is sensitive and nuanced. I think it has to do with the structure. I can understand why this piece didn’t have a straightforward narrative: it was from Peggy’s perspective, and she no longer experienced the world in a linear, straightforward way. But this didn’t feel like a person’s story at all. I was discussing it afterwards with my sister, who came to see it with me. She’s a psych student, and she made the astute observation that it felt like a dramatisation of the entry of dementia in the DSM. Instead of exploring Peggy’s relationships and interactions and how her dementia affected them, it seemed more preoccupied with dramatising her symptoms. In places, it had that kind of educational feel about it that you get in those Very Special episodes of TV shows that deal with the big issues.

I have already mentioned the technical superiority of this piece, and I want to mention it again, because in this sense, it really is outstanding. In some places, it’s almost a little too outstanding. Maybe I’m just really shallow, but I’m ridiculously easily impressed by feats of strength and flexibility, and there were bits where I was all, “wow! that’s amazing! that guy is standing on that other guy’s shoulders while he’s kind of doing a half sit up leaning on his elbows! how does that even work?” This is all fine and good, but the spectacle broke me out of engagement with the show. I also felt that, while the dance was brilliant, it was used in much the same way the whole way through: to dramatise and metaphorically mirror the struggles and turmoil going on in Peggy’s mind. I would have been interested to see what other ways dance might be used in a performative sense here.

I feel like I’ve been quite hard on Sundowner. There is a lot to like in it, not least the physical prowess of the performers. However, I think it contained the potential for so much more. In particular, there was a lot more room for emotional exploration in the narrative. I would have loved to get more of a sense of who Peggy was as a person. Beyond the fact that she was a writer and liked dance and music and theatre, we didn’t know a whole lot about her. Maybe this is because the show was told very much from Peggy’s perspective and she didn’t quite know who she was either, but it lowered the narrative stakes. It was hard to imagine just how much Peggy had to lose.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Other Desert Cities

Other Desert Cities runs at Melbourne Theatre Company from 2 March – 17 April. By Jon Robin Baitz, directed by Sam Strong.

As readers of my blog will probably be aware, I do the majority of my theatre reviewing in Sydney. However, I recently found myself in Melbourne for academic purposes, and so I thought I’d check out some of what’s going on down there. And so I went along to Other Desert Cities, Sam Strong’s (late of Sydney’s Griffin Theatre Company) directorial debut in his new position as artistic associate at Melbourne Theatre Company.

This is a very fine script. This is not exactly a secret –it was nominated for a Pulitzer, so this is hardly a groundbreaking observation. Other Desert Cities is the story of a family in crisis. Brooke (Sacha Horler) and Trip (Ian Meadows), the children of Republican senator Lyman Wyeth (John Gaden) and his hardass wife Polly Wyeth (Robyn Nevin) have come home to Palm Springs for the holidays. Brooke has shocking news to tell her family: she has written a tell-all memoir about the life and death of her older brother Henry, who rebelled against his parents and who Lyman and Polly turned away when he needed help the most. This memoir, if published, will rock the Wyeth family to the core. But, as we learn over the course of the play, there is far more to the story of Henry than Brooke knows. The truth – if there is one – is more complicated than her perspective.

One of the most common things that writers get told is to show, not tell. I completely understand why this is useful advice for writers starting out; however, this play is a testament to the power of storytelling (emphasis on the telling) and the fact that sometimes action is more powerful in retrospect. Truth becomes splintered and multiplied in Other Desert Cities, refracted through all the perspectives of the characters. Everyone has their own version of the action, different pieces of the puzzle, different narratives that they have lived by, stories they have told.

The reason writers get told to show, not tell, is so they don’t fall into the trap of having characters talking about the interesting stuff that has happened rather than allowing the audience to see what actually happened. Other Desert Cities has almost a story within a story: it is the story of the disparate reactions of the Wyeth family to the disparate versions of the Henry story. The script is strong enough to break the show-don’t-tell rule – we are definitely more invested in the how-people-react story rather than the what-actually-happened story. However, the danger with this kind of narrative is that it can become sedentary – a bunch of people talking without anything actually seeming to happen. I measured the places where the narrative flagged by the woman sitting next to me: when things weren’t happening, psychologically speaking, for the Wyeth family, she would promptly fall asleep. This is not to say that the show was in any way boring, because it wasn’t. However, she did provide a remarkably accurate barometer as to when interesting tensions were being exploited as opposed to when characters were simply sparring or bantering. Sam Strong’s direction was taut enough that she didn’t fall asleep often. The scenes she drifted off in were largely those involving Trip, and I was sad for her, because I really enjoyed Ian Meadows’ work in this production. His character is caught in the middle of the battle between the Wyeth parents and Brooke, and so he becomes somewhat extraneous to it, but he had some great moments. (I would totally watch that trashy reality courtroom show he works on. So hard. I love the way that, in a play which deals so much with ideas of truth, his daily work was on reality TV, the fakest truth there is. It was so perfect.)

One of the cleverest things about this show was the set. As soon as I walked in and saw that glass box on the stage, my mind went straight to the Simon Stone place, but I feel like the glass was symbolic in a different way here. The glass reflects the truth as we see it, but we can also see through it to something else. Transparency and truth were one of the major preoccupations of the play. In the first act, characters can pass through the transparent space of the house, skirting it but not addressing it. In the second act, when truths are revealed, they are contained within it, transparency becoming a prison, truth doing the opposite of setting them free. This was cleverly mirrored by the swimming pool at the front of the stage: it too reflected back an image, but if you tried to penetrate too deep, you could drown (just like Henry).

I feel like Other Desert Cities could easily have become static and dull, but in the deft hands of Sam Strong, it is a deeply engaging and moving piece of theatre. The cast is magnificent – I have already mentioned the work of Ian Meadows, but I would be remiss not to note the wonderful work of Sacha Horler and Robyn Nevin also. John Gaden tended a little towards the melodramatic in certain moments on occasion with his portrayal of Lyman, but his performance was nonetheless wonderful and nuanced, as was Sue Jones’ performance as Polly’s recovering alcoholic sister. Don’t let the woman who fell asleep next to me put you off: this is a great show. It engages cleverly with ideas of story, truth, and performativity. It is funny without letting the humour overtake the story at its heart: humour, in this show, is just another way the truth is deflected.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Cut Snake

I reviewed Cut Snake (Arthur and Tamarama Rock Surfers) over at Australian Stage - you can read all my thoughts here. Shorter version: this is a very special show and you need to see it.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Richard III

Richard III runs at the Genesian Theatre from March 9 – April 20 2013. By William Shakespeare, directed by Gary Dooley.

Genesian Theatre Company’s production of Richard III is an entertaining, if perhaps unadventurous, take on Shakespeare’s play. It is at its best when it embraces its own theatricality – these moments are fleeting, but when they occur, they are truly memorable.

Director Gary Dooley has set his Richard III in 1940s England, a time when (as in the historical period that the real Richard and co lived) the nation was rebuilding after a long and intense war. This is not a historically accurate 1940s, just as Richard is not a historically accurate Richard: it is a dream of the 1940s, evoking the uncertainties of the postwar world. Can there ever really be peace? The threat is no longer coming from an enemy, an othered outsider: instead, it comes from within the royal family itself. Roger Gimblett plays Richard like Scar from The Lion King, prowling about the stage as best as he can with his cane (this Richard has lost the use of one arm, presumably in the battles that occurred before the beginning of his play). He relishes his scheming, delighting in his own Machiavellian cleverness. This works very well in the first half of the play, but it means that his crisis of confidence in the second half seems very sudden. Richard’s unravelling is quite abrupt. It is well dramatised and theatrically engaging, but it was a very sharp twist in a character who apparently revelled in his own amorality.

There are some spectacular moments in this production –spectacular in the sense of spectacle, visually and theatrically remarkable. Richard’s coronation is one of these. Rivers’ execution at the end of the first half is another (this was just plain cool – it was a great note on which to send the audience to interval!). The gas masks in the battle are fantastically creepy. Perhaps the best of these spectacular moments is Richard’s dream, where the people he have killed come back to haunt him on the night before the Battle of Bosworth Field, telling him to despair and die. This spectacle is abetted by a simple and functional set. Some set changes were a little clunky, but when the set was in place, it worked beautifully. In the dream sequence, the dead appeared behind Venetian blinds, spookily lit in green. It was genuinely eerie.

Unfortunately, the production does not maintain this level of dynamicism. I’m not saying that every scene needs to be a spectacle, but there were other scenes in which I found my attention drifting. These were generally scenes heavy on the political machinations. Political machinations can be fascinating – if nothing else, we have learned this from Game of Thrones – but here, some of them felt laboured, slowing down the play’s momentum. At two hours and forty minutes, this production definitely feels too long. Classic as Richard III is, I feel it would have been a better show with some judicious trimming.

There were some really good performances in this production –I especially want to mention Hailey McQueen’s subtle yet wrenching portrayal of Lady Anne and Elizabeth McGregor’s determined and enraged Queen Elizabeth – but the real standout for me was Patrick Magee. He shone in the smaller roles, particularly as the murderer plagued by conscience and as the triumphant Earl of Richmond. I saw someone in the audience physically fistpump when he declared that the day was won, and I understood the impulse. I’ll be interested to see what Magee does next. Perhaps the oddest casting decision was the one to have the two young princes played by mannequin-esque puppets. I understand wanting to find an alternative to child actors, but I really don’t think “puppets” was the next logical place to go. My theatre date and I both grew up watching children’s TV in the 1990s, and the first thing we said to each other in interval was, “OMG THOSE PUPPETS WERE EC FROM LIFTOFF”. (For clarity, EC was a talking, faceless, possibly omnipotent doll. He was supposed to be a benevolent character, but in reality, he came off sinister and terrifying.) The puppet princes were bizarre at best. They robbed the death of the princes of a lot of emotional impact – it’s one thing to brutally execute a couple of children, but another to dispose of a few creepy mannequins.

I felt like there was more this production could have done. It could have been bolder in its reading: it was quite a straightforward and arguably cautious production of Shakespeare’s play. However, it was very engaging and it contained some moments of real theatrical spectacle. It’s not the most out-there production of Shakespeare you’ll ever see, but it’s definitely worth watching.


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Kupenga Kwa Hamlet

Kupenga Kwa Hamlet (Two Gents Productions) runs at Merrigong from March 5-9 2013. Also touring to Perth, Sydney and Canberra. Adapted and created by Denton Chikura, Tonderai Munyebvu, and Arne Pohlmeier. Directed by Arne Pohlmeier.
The stage is completely bare, apart from one small piece of fabric. Two actors enter, singing. From this nothingness, using nothing but their own abilities, they tell one of the most famous stories in the canon. Kupenga Kwa Hamlet is a wonderful piece of storytelling and an absolutely sublime piece of theatre. It is a performative triumph.

As readers of my blog will know, Hamlet and I have not been on good terms so far this year (have no idea what I’m talking about? read this). Kupenga Kwa Hamlet has totally changed my luck. This is how you approach a classic text in a new and innovative way. This is how you make an old story exciting, how you ignite its universality. This was more than a great play – this was great storytelling.

Kupenga Kwa Hamlet features only two actors, Denton Chikura and Tonderai Munyebvu. Between them, they play all the characters. This sounds confusing, and I was certainly apprehensive at first, but they pull off this Shona township version of Hamlet with such aplomb and ease that you almost forget that there are only two people on the stage. This is a perfect example of how less is more. Characters are defined by simple gestures, and there is never a single second where you are confused about who is playing whom. Claudius becomes Gertrude becomes Ophelia becomes Hamlet, and you never question it for a second. The transformations are almost magical (and occasionally, extremely funny). It is a triumph of both acting and directing. To tell a story this complex and layered with only two actors is remarkable.

This is a self-consciously theatrical production, the story of Hamlet effectively framed by the township style. Chikura and Monyebvu frequently break the fourth wall and offer commentary on the proceedings to the audience. This is not something I'm a a fan of normally, because I think a lot of people try to pull off this pseudo-Brechtian device without a good reason for it. This was not the case here. Kupenga Kwa Hamlet playfully engages with the performative layers of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and uses them to create an exhilaratingly new and alive piece of theatre. The house lights were left up for the whole performance. I actually thought this was a technical error at first, but soon realised my mistake. We, the audience, were part of the performance. I’m not talking audience participation so much (though there is a little bit of that), but audience inclusion. This is township style theatre, and we were the township. The show was being performed to a specific audience, and that audience was us. Despite the cavernous size of the IMB theatre, this show felt intimate, because the audience was part of it.

This is perhaps also why the story of Hamlet, so often told, felt so fresh and exciting. It was already a little unfamiliar: it uses the text from the first quarto (sometimes called the bad quarto), in which Polonius is called Corambis and many of the famous speeches are a little different. Kupenga Kwa Hamlet is a distillation of Hamlet rather than a faithful performance of it, but this serves more to make it accessible than to press some particular reading or agenda. The story emerges in the simplest things. In gestures, in expressions, in the most basic interactions between two actors, this complex play is performed, and performed brilliantly.

There is a certain celebratory feel about this show. I certainly felt like celebrating after I had seen it, because it is one of the clearest, most innovative, and most alive productions of Shakespeare I have ever seen. This is how you tell a story. This is how you make theatre – simply, honestly. It’s funny without being ridiculous, sad without being melodramatic, theatrical without being self-indulgent. The directing is incisive and clever, the acting inspired. It’s an affectionate rendition of a famous play, and its brilliance lies in its unapologetic simplicity. I absolutely adored it and if you have even the hint of an opportunity, you should see it.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof

I reviewed Belvoir St's production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof over at Australian Stage - you can read what I thought here. (Also, there is a bonus reference to Friday Night Lights, because that's just the way I roll.)