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.