Octoroon originality

An Octoroon (Queensland Theatre and Brisbane Festival)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

September 15 – October 8

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An octoroon is a person who has one-eighth black heritage. This now-politically-incorrect titular understanding is at the centre of Queensland Theatre’s “An Octoroon” we are told in a meta-theatre pre-emptive explanation of the Act Four function in melodrama. The clarification is not necessary, but appreciated given all that is going in American writer Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ confronting, challenging and compelling re-imagining of a 19th century slavery melodrama by Irish writer Dion Boucicault.

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The Peyton family’s Louisiana plantation seems destined to fall into the unscrupulous hands of its former overseer, M’Closky (Colin Smith). George Peyton (also Colin Smith) is a decent man who scandalously falls for Zoe (Shari Sebbens), the well-educated, illegitimate and octoroon daughter of the deceased owner. And so, he must choose between his love for Zoe and his need to save the estate by marrying the entitled rich heiress Dora (Sarah Ogden).

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It begins, however, with the meta-theatrical framing device of playwright character, BJJ (Colin Smith) sharing his frustrations with being a ‘black playwright’ before a confrontation with the original text’s playwright (Anthony Standish). With his white actors having quit the play, BJJ proceeds to don white face paint and perform their roles himself, which happens to lead to one of many hilarious scenes as he switches between the heroic George and the antagonist M’Closky in a physical altercation.

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In the hands of leading aboriginal artist Nakkiah Lui, in her directorial debut, this Australian exclusive production, has been subtly re-contextualised through our own lens. Its rich and resplendent tapestry of themes is realised in a lively work of much colour and movement. So much is going on in stylised chaos as music pumps, characters interact playfully and black actors wear whiteface and white actors wear blackface.

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Much of the laugher generated is of the uneasy sort and staging, with a long white traverse space with the audience seated on both sides, affords opportunity to see how others are also reacting both in its riotous moments and when serious consideration sharply contrasts earlier scenes. When the audience watches in absolute silence during these later-show moments, it is not with indifference but with acute understanding and acknowledgement of the impact of its message.

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Certainly, the indigenous re-contextualisation of the African American story to themes from Australia’s colonial history, works, without detracting from the spirit of the original. Risky themes and complicated questions are translated with effective use of visual language to create a completely original and engaging theatrical experience that is through-provoking and challenging in its layered exploration of who we are and who we are becoming.

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Although it is Smith, Standish and Antony Taufa who perform multiple roles in the show, it the ladies of the cast who leave the most lasting impression. Sebbens makes for a humorous heroine, Zoe and Ogden appears to be having great fun within her role as the heiress Dora; she is every bit a stereotypical Southern Belle desperate for George’s attention, complete with an over-the-top accent.

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Chenoa Deemal makes the most of her role as field-slave Grace, shunned by those of higher, house, station, while closely bonded house-slaves Minnie (Elaine Crombie) and Dido (Melodie Reynolds-Diarra) provide the most laughs in their sassy banter about slave life, the chemistry between the pair filling the theatre in their every easy interaction. Indeed, as the brash, tell-it-as-it-is Minnie, Crombie is absolutely superb in her comic timing and the very best thing about the show.

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“An Octoroon” is an original and gripping provocation that gives audiences much to take away from its energetic, fearless approach to interrogating race and identity and the extent to which stereotypes are still embedded in today’s consciousness. It is not only a deconstruction of racial representation, but a gripping production (despite its two hour duration), to be enjoyed and appreciated in equal measure. … bold, inventive and probably unlike anything you will have ever seen on stage before.

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Courting Terror

Terror (Lyric Hamersmith)

QPAC, The Playhouse

September 19 – 23

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A hijacked Lufthansa Airbus is heading towards a packed Munich football stadium. Ignoring the orders of his superiors, a fighter pilot shoots the passenger aircraft down, killing the 164 people on board in order to save the 70,000 at the stadium for the Germany vs England football match. As he is put on trial and charged with murder, the fate of the pilot is in the audience’s hands. … Clearly, “Terror” is quite different from last year’s Brisfest hilarity from the UK’s Lyric Hammersmith in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Yet, in its Australian premiere, direct from London and exclusive to the Brisbane Festival, audience reaction is just as glowing for the compelling courtroom drama by the lawyer and writer Ferdinand von Schirach, which is unsurprising given its global acclaim since debut in Berlin two years ago.

The Playhouse stage has been transformed by the show’s grand, authentic courtroom design. German Army Eurofighter Lars Koch (Chris New) is in witness box; we can see him in profile as he steelily stares ahead. As lay judges, it is us to decide the consequences of his decision to deliberately end the lives of the 164 people on the plane, which breaks constitutional law. Guilty or not guilty, we decide.

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It’s is far from a straight-forward decision, especially given that lack of any revelation of conscience from the accused who stands steadfast in defence of his actions. It’s a heavy premise, with verbose speeches that require audience concentration as philosophical aspects are discussed and illustrated. Its engagement comes from the moral complexity of what is being presented for consideration. Can we sympathise with his dilemma and/or empathise with his decision, despite his apparent lack of humanity or remorse?

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Josephine Butler makes for a firm and authoritative presiding judge, pacing things along. New and his expert witness Sam Redford, are appropriately rigid in their military responses and Remmie Milner brings a soft humanity to her role as a grieving victim’s wife. But the stars are the state prosecutor (Sarah Malin) and defence lawyer (Aidan Kelly). Not only do they each passionately present convincing arguments about the sanctity of human dignity, the impact of probabilities, the notion of a greater good and the choice of a lesser evil, but they force us to consider the impact of their respective approaches as much as their legal rhetoric.

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Luckily we are given intermission to discuss and decide on our vote… and what robust discussions ensure in dissection of testimony as audience members prepare to register their votes via an electronic pad beside each seat. On our night, the split is 61:39 towards not-guilty, which is in keeping with the consistent 60:40 split amongst the jurors at each performance, apart from China and Japan. Indeed, it is quite fascinating to look at the results’ trend, collated and documented on the show’s webpage, including note of how they fare in comparison to the timing of the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels.

“Terror” is a static work, which makes it an acquired taste. Still, anticipation of the verdict’s delivery makes for an interesting, interactive drama from the versatile theatre company, unlike usual theatre fair. The continuing debate amongst strangers as they depart stands as testament to both its undeniable relevance and unique engagement.

Get your tickets at www.brisbanefestival.com.au

Ambition anew

Signifying Nothing (Hammond Fleet Productions)

Theatre Republic, La Boite Studio

September 12 -23

Paul and Lainey Macbeth are double trouble…the ultimate ambitious duo, ruthless and willing to risk everything for more. They are like the Francis and Claire Underwood power-couple of Western Australian public service, moving swiftly from local politics to the state’s premiership. Even Paul’s best friend, Banquo has doubts about Mac and Lainey’s tactics. This is “Signifying Nothing”, playwright and stand-up comedian Greg Fleet’s modern take on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” tragedy of vaulting political ambition, set in the megalomaniac world of Australian politics and featuring transformation of the bloody Scottish tyrant to a foul-mouthed politician with vaulting ambition and a hard drug habit.

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The show is a two-hander, beginning as a husband and wife domestic drama, with all of the other characters later appearing as compliment on screen. Fleet is strong as the arrogant and egomaniacal, but also slyly charismatic, liberal candidate Paul Macbeth, even though the original text’s denser dialogue doesn’t always sit well in his delivery. Nicola Bartlett, meanwhile is both powerful and beguiling as his wife Lainey, ruthlessly manipulative and haunted by grief as she struggles to stay behind the political scenes. In her hands, the protagonist’s lady is more of a vulnerable, tragic heroine than focussed femme fatale. And it works. Her performance is a compelling one of desperation as she breaks down more from ongoing grief than sudden guilt over her primary role in the political machinations which have led to Premier Duncan being scandalised and Banquo brutally murdered. Indeed, the interaction between the two, co-dependently clinging to each other in the parental grief that many had read from the play, conveys an affection that reveals a real humanity behind their house of cards, enabling those familiar with the source material to consider their relationship anew.

Devilish scheming sits alongside comedy, however, as the robust Shakespearean story is morphed with the vibrant life of a Western Australian politician, eager to put aside the personal tragedy of loss of the couple’s son some years earlier in a domestic accident. The result is a compelling combination of high drama and political farce that is very clever in its contemporisation (without loss of key quotes) and Australian contextualisation. Although the expletive-filled Australian vernacular elements of the dialogue are quite delicious …. “Macbeth you dodgy fucker, Macduff is going to fuck you up”, however, it’s juxtaposition with Shakespearean language is sometimes jarring.

Similarly, when the story’s ghosts appear as projected on a screen above the bed, they are anticlimactic in ‘impact’. Otherwise, camera work complements set design, allowing for the intimacy of a marital bedroom, but also big picture moments courtesy of the projected recordings of the ‘munter’ weird sister ‘witches’ as exit-poll vox pop interviewees. Lighting evokes the extreme emotions of the story’s drama towards its ultimate, inevitable futility and a dynamic soundscape excites with song snippets from The Killers, Nick Cave and inventive use of Hilltop Hoods’ ‘The Nosebleed Section’ as integrated soundtrack to a political press conference q and a, representing some of the best few moments of theatre I’ve seen in recent years

“Signifying Nothing” represents a rich rendering of one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, that audience members can appreciate with only minimal general knowledge of the literary canon from which it originates. In presentation of the themes of “Macbeth” anew, it illustrates Shakespeare’s capture of the universal human condition and the significance of its timeless theme of the potential consequences of unchecked ambition beyond mere cultural heritage value.

Get your tickets at www.brisbanefestival.com.au

History highlighted

History History History (Brisbane Festival and QUT)

Theatre Republic, The Loft

12 – 16 September

History is about stories … interconnected and incomplete stories. This is the premise at the heart of Deborah Pearson’s “History History History”, a show whose concept centres on the 1956 Hungarian uprising and its Corvin Cinema revolutionary headquarters in Budapest, but evolves into an intimate and moving personal tale of family, love, loss and conflict.

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The premise is initially obscure in its selection; Pearson loosely ‘translates’ the film that was meant to be screened at the cinema that night. It is a unique set-up too; the show is timed to play out alongside the film being shown on either a big backdrop screen or smaller one beside the performer, using interviews with the exiled screenwriter and people involved with the film, in its content. Together we watch the credits and the film’s initial football match, just as audience members would have, had it been released as scheduled in that Budapest cinema so many years ago. Onscreen the humour is predictable enough as far as Hungarian comedies about pen salesmen who are mistaken for real life legendary footballers go. And metatheatre adds humour as later subtitles reference the recording’s bootleg quality and notice is made of which Hollywood stars are doppelgänged amongst its cast.

But soon after the story of the film is shared, the focus transitions to the story behind the film. And what an interesting story it is…. of the complicated politics behind both the initial film and later censored version as the production highlights the history of the film in timeline against the political history of Hungary, under forced Soviet rule after World War Two in lead up to 1956 revolution and beyond. The stories are interchangable to the Canadian performer due to her family involvement in the film, which twists the story in a fascinating direction as she tells the tale of a man who loses his language with poignant honesty, in acknowledgement of history’s messiness and difficulty to edit.

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Within the show, Pearson quotes Austrian-born American management consultant, Peter Drucker with “the most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said”. It’s a memorable moment because it so perfectly encapsulates the essence of this unique and rewarding theatrical experience. Having only just returned from Hungary a couple of months ago, I found it particularly intriguing, but there is appeal too for anyone with a fascination for history and ‘truth is better than fiction’ type stories. It’s a rare thing to see on stage these days and wonderful for Brisfest to have brought it to us as a treat on top of our usual Brisbane theatre diet.

Bradley’s Becoming Bill

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Sometimes, the experience of musical theatre can be so special as to leave you in want of a thesaurus to do its distinction justice. With its combination of creative talents, “Highlights from Becoming Bill” by Bradley McCaw offers a take-home version of this with its tell of an ordinary family confronting the ghosts from their past as Bill, a first time writer, struggles to write a musical.

Bill is a pretty decent guy. When he gets a phone call from a theatre company asking him to write a new musical for an upcoming season, he struggles to find any inspiration before deciding to base it upon his real life and family. As Bill searches for something ‘interesting’ about which to write, he discovers their lives are not as simple and dull as they first appeared.

Recorded in three studios around the country, the new musical theatre record features contributions from some of Australia’s finest performers: Peter Cousens, Natalie O’Donnell, Kathryn McIntyre, Tom Oliver and Bradley McCaw in its varied melodic diet. From the sweet melody of ‘Are You Happy?’ by Natalie O’Donnell (soon to be seen in “Mamma Mia”), with a piano accompaniment to savour, to the poignant drama of a reflective ‘Mother and Son’ by Kathryn McIntyre (of “Ladies in Black”), each number allows for a conviction of delivery in enhance of narrative elements.

And when the ‘stage’ is shared, such as in former Ten Tenor McCaw and McIntyre’s touching, lingering duet, ‘Maybe We’ve Reached it All’, the result is quite glorious in its blend of voices. Indeed, the song is neither too earnest or exposition heavy, yet still manages to carry an emotional punch as its characters determine with haunting lyricism, if they ‘should try again’. In particular, McIntyre’s contribution to the record, shows her immense musical talent, especially in ‘Let’s Not Have This Fight’ (all right?), a compelling upbeat number that soars as a standout, in that “Wicked” type way, thanks also to the personality of McCaw’s ​piano accompaniment.

​After seven years of development, art appears to be imitating life; “Becoming Bill” reflects a true time in this emerging artists life, when McCaw was asked to write a musical (his first foray in the area), “Becoming Bill”, which won the 2016 New Musicals Australia Snapshot Award. The production of a musical soundtrack is an art form itself. And in the case of “Highlights from Becoming Bill” the musical compositions allow us to soar along with their talented performers, in that goosebumpy type way. The record will be released nationally later this year but for now can be purchased via www.bradleymccaw.com. If you are the kind of person who sometimes posts musical theatre memes on your Facebook feed (#guilty), then this is the sort of not-so-guilty pleasure you will love.

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From forgiveness

I Just Came to Say Goodbye (The Good Room)

Theatre Republic, The Block

September 13 – 23

Like their earlier shows, “I Should Have Drunk More Champagne” and “I Want to Know What Love Is”, The Good Room’s “I Just Came to Say Goodbye” is derived from a deceptively simple premise; shared, anonymous submissions of fragments and memories, confessions and admissions, become the basis of the script. This time it is forgiveness and regret, with the true contributions of forgiveness yearned, earned and unfortunately absent, filing the spaces between tell of a bigger real-life story from recent history. And this is where the show’s strength lies… its basis in truth, even if it is initially diluted by a superfluously long dance sequence by an ensemble of stagehands. Although it is to establish that we are all on a flight together, it’s more dodgy than dynamic and a foil to the force of the story that follows, though that is probably the point.

When, in 2002, two planes collided over Germany due to human (air traffic controller) error, Vitaly Kaloyeu lost his wife and two children amongst the killed passengers. It is this tragic story upon which the work hangs, leading to an extreme aesthetic experience of full black out, terrifying crash sound blasts and brutal lighting courtesy of Composer/Sound Designer Dane Alexander and Lighting Designer Jason Glenwright. Things are fast and furious with an apocalyptic sensibility, but also, at times, tender in heartfelt vulnerability and visually quite stunning as, through share of the anonymous contributions, the audience is sucker-punched with an array of emotions in scenes of anger, intimacy, humour and tragedy, from heavy-duty stories of assault and aids infection to more lighthearted tells of school dance disagreements and karaoke song theft.

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The ensemble cast appropriates every opportunity for connection from the material. Amy Ingram’s forthright delivery of details of the DHL cargo plane and Russian passenger jet collision allows the audience to bring their own emotion to its story. In contrast, Caroline Dunphy is tender in her description of the before and after of the crash site, but powerful too in her share of people’s sometimes shocking contributions. Thomas Larkin and Michael Tuahine bring a dynamic energy to the ensemble’s physical scenes, especially a spectacular, complex fight experience (choreographed by Justin Palazzo-Orr).

In Director Daniel Evans’ hands, “I Just Came to Say Goodbye” avalanches the audience in sound, lighting and emotion, with a pumping soundtrack to boot. Some moments lag a little indulgently, but when it is at its ferocious best, it is a beast of a show that deserves experience more than just read of its description. As is often the case with the best theatrical events its craftedness is only really appreciated upon reflection of its heartening final, positive message about the power that can come from forgiveness and the importance of finding ways to move forward.

Get your tickets at www.brisbanefestival.com.au

The Beak and the beautiful

Laser Beak Man (La Boite, Dead Puppet Society and Brisbane Festival)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

September 9 – 30

As “Laser Beak Man” begins with as a hole-in-the-wall style puppet show, I’m reminded of how much I typically dislike the genre. Then, the stage widens into a 3D dazzle celebration of Laser Beak Man, the colourful superhero created by internationally-acclaimed, but still-humble, Australian artist Tim Sharp who has autism.

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The magical transformation comes as time transitions from the childhood world of Laser Beak Boy and his friend Peter Bartman, a world full of utopian dreams. With the years having then flown by, Laser Beak Man saves Power City from an angry tomato which enrages now-nemesis Peter towards villainy and theft (with sidekick Evil Emily) of all-powerful crystals. And so the story is set for a classic (super) hero tale as the mute Laser Beak Man sets off with a menagerie ensemble to retrieve the crystals needed to supercharge the city, and ultimately face-off with his now-nemesis.

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The ambitious project sees both the story and Sharp’s stunning artistry brought to life by David Morton and Nicholas Paine, the genius creative minds at Dead Puppet Society, as part of a long term company residency at La Boite in between tours and a New York residency at the New Victory Theatre. And the result is outrageously entertaining. Transitions are seamless and rich production elements are on display in its every aspect, combining to create a compelling and moving narrative. Indeed, the storytelling is masterful, featuring complexity in its off-beat, witty humour, political allusions and visual puns for adults alongside exaggerated colour and movement for children. And it’s inclusion of free-flying orb helium-based drone objects (for the first time on an Australian stage) representing a hot air balloon and surveillance blimp, is impressive to all.

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Projection Designer Justin Harrison’s vibrant visual world is also supported by superbly considered music by Sam Cromack of Ball Park Music (performed along with Daniel Hanson, Dean Hanson and Luke Mosley), providing melodic enhancement through songs like the anthemic ‘We Found Strength in Numbers’.

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The cast of puppeteers is incredible in characterisation of their puppet characters. Lauren Jackson makes Barbie deliciously down-to-earth and animates Amazing Grace as a feisty, free-spirited traveller whose advice to Laser Beak Man about the road to happiness encapsulates so much of the show’s thoughtful themes. And also of note, New York’s Jon Riddleberger, holds audience emotions in the palm of his hand as the adorable black sheep. Indeed, so absorbing is the show that you soon forget that the puppeteers are even there.

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Each year La Boite Theatre Company collaborate with Brisbane Festival to being a new work to life. But this one is particularly special and the elated opening night audience ovation accordingly provided the most heartfelt curtain call perhaps ever seen in Roundhouse Theatre.

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“Laser Beak Man” is a big show with a big heart, uplifting and full of utter joy in its childlike magic, message about not needing to speak to listen and attest to the important ideas of inclusion, equality and loving who you are. With its positive messages about embracing difference and affirmation of belief in a better, more inclusive world, it represents both all that can be powerful about theatre and exactly what the world needs right now. It is beautiful, important and the reason why art is made, and you probably won’t ever see anything like it again.

Photos c/o – Daniel Evans Photography