River deep

Vincent River (The Curators)

Christ Church Milton

October 13 – 31

Vincent River is not a location; it is the name of the character at the centre of Philip Ridley’s powerful 2000 one act play of the same name that addresses homophobic-based violence, which can really be extended to include violence against any form of difference. However, even with this knowledge, Vincent’s character remains elusive as, despite dominating discussions, we never see him on stage. Instead, we begin with 53-year-old London East-Ender Anita (Amanda McErlean) being visited by 17-year-old Davey (Patrick Shearer), a stranger who has been following her.

It has only been months since Anita lost her son Vincent in a brutal hate crime and although she is clearly a strong woman, she is emotionally desperate for every, even gruesome, detail from the stranger who found the corpse of her murdered son and now wants to know more details about his life. As information is guarded and then shared, the duo drink and banter through their searches for an end their pains, for Davey has also suffered loss on a scale greater than we at first realise. All is revealed as their shared story navigates its way through accusations and insults, revelations, yearning for love and a reprieving resolution of sorts.

On paper, a 90-minute two-hander of this nature can seem like an arduous undertaking, however, incredible performances mean that experience of the engrossing tale flies by despite its narrative smoulder. Indeed, Michael Beh’s evocative direction allows McErlean and Shearer to give their all as performers meaning that the story is told magnetically, in reaction to each other as much as through their own dialogue delivery. Never off-stage, McErlean takes Anita through the full gamut of emotions during the play, convincingly conveying the grief, disorientation and guilt of a mother who has lost her only son in the most unthinkably violent of circumstances, leaving her with only contemplation of lost opportunities. Then with his slick jacket removal, things switch to Davey’s complexities and the real reason for his visit. The remainder of the show seems almost like an extended monologue from him and, in Shearer’s hands, we hang on his every moment of bravado and ultimate vulnerability. There is a natural cadence to his dialogue delivery that makes him a captivating storyteller despite the disturbance of his recall of the critical incident.

Ridley’s clever writing also serves to elevate the work. While the script of “Vincent River” is dense, it is full of natural dialogue and well-placed moments of silence. It is a tense and turbulent drama in its portrayal of its deep and confronting themes of hate crime, homophobia and grief, but this is considerately tempered by some tender moments and flashes of humour to ease the strain. Craftedness is seen in its revisited motifs that are not overdone in their inclusion. Similarly, too, this production’s dynamic soundscape, including of well-placed song snippets, is not overdone. Bethany Scott’s evocative lighting design and shadows are used to effect for emphasis, though transitions are occasionally abrupt. And the contrast of Michael Beh’s set design of a dingy apartment against a vibrant backdrop, is impressive, especially in such an intimate venue as Milton’s Christ Church.

“Vincent River” is gripping theatre. Its execution is almost claustrophobically taut, meaning that its experience is harrowingly emotional, in the way that good stories often are. The fact that it comes with important messages around marginalisation makes it another perfect choice for The Curators and an absolute treat for theatre-starved audiences.

Photos c/o – Naz Mulla

Beethoven’s best

Beethoven 5 (Queensland Symphony Orchestra)

QPAC, Concert Hall

October 16 – 17

There is something wonderful about the power of music to take its listeners back to particular memories or points of time in the past. In the case of QSO’s Gala Return Concert, “Beethoven 5”, funded through the Queensland Government’s $22.5 million two-year Arts and Cultural Recovery Package, it is an exciting transportation back to the precedented times of seven months ago when there were last performances in the Concert Hall, evident even before its main feature of Beethoven’s ambitious Symphony No 5.  

There is a clear excitement in the air, both onstage and off, which is only amplified by the vision of unison bows rising dramatically in the full, rich strings section of the concert opener, Richard Strauss’ action-packed and evocative symphonic tone poem “Don Juan”. From the flamboyance of the single movement’s orchestral combinations to the stillness of its subdued, melancholic, dreamy and mournful passages, this is a richly textured piece, carefully realised. From the moment the broad narrative of the great lover’s life and death confidently jumps forth with a breathtaking virtuosity as the dashing hero arrives on the scene, there is an infectious energy which crescendos in its melody of horns. The exuberance of its orchestral colour is epic, especially in contrast to its tender oboe-announced love themes. Indeed, this is a charming piece that allows the orchestra en masse to swirl its way into audience hearts, whether they be first-time or return QSO patrons.

Conductor Laureate and former Chief Conductor Johannes Fritzsch, has returned to lead Queensland Symphony Orchestra in one of the best-known compositions in classical music – Beethoven’s triumphant 5th Symphony, composed over many years to culminate in a revolutionary piece. And though its first four turbulent tone-setting da-da-da-DUM notes are familiar jolts, there is still a thrill to the live experience of their tight and urgent foreboding.

Its orchestral challenge is what makes the the symphony’s eclectic experience so rewarding, beyond just melodic writing. The work is full of theatrical moments, especially in its lyrical second movement’s beautiful viola and cello melodies moving to the pomp and circumstance of brass fanfare and jaunty onwards journey to dark emotions. The horns announce the third act, before the winds and strings articulate the music with short, soft notes. Not only does this deliberately disrupt any usual sense of symmetry and balance, but its facilitates a punchy ending allows Fritzsch a particular opportunity to shine as he guides orchestra members and the audience towards the joyous celebration of its long coda, complete with some false endings.

Even to the classical music lay-person the manner with which Beethoven toppled traditional classical symphony concepts and structural signposts in this iconic work is clear. Without an always easy flow, the at-times severe music engenders a sense of unease to keep audiences on their emotional toes, which makes for a gripping experience. Of course, the fresh and vibrant celebration of live music is a magical reminder of the spectacle of the orchestra in full flight performance of the complex, multi-layered work of a master composer and The Queensland Symphony Orchestra has never sounded better than in this taut and accessible triumph.

Lightened-up laughs

Lighten Up (Queensland Theatre)

September 17

One of the limitations of engagement with a play reading is the need for imagination to fill its gaps of costumes, props and staging. From early into Queensland Theatre’s Play Club presentation of Nicholas Brown and Sam McCool’s debut play “Lighten Up”, it is evident that is especially true, given the story’s fast past and frequent scenes changes. In Queensland Theatre’s hands, however, this ultimately proves to be little barrier to audience engagement, thanks to its clever writing and on-point performances.

The story, which serves as a satire on race and racism in the Australian entertainment industry is based on the lived experience of its co-writer Nicholas Brown and realisation that sometimes in-between black and white there is a grey area. It is here where the play’s protagonist John Green (Nikhil Singh) lives. When we meet him, the struggling Anglo-Indian-Australian actor is jovially planning an Australia Day party; networking amongst the dramatic society is important as he needs to meet the right people to help with his career.

Just as he isn’t interested in his own heritage, John is apathetic in response to losing his job as a cockney convict tour guide regurgitating the European version of history around Sydney Cove. He just wants to be on Australia’s longest running soap “Bondi Parade”. His girlfriend Janelle (Tatum Mottin), however, is pressing for a formal commitment, urged on by John’s mother Bronwyn’s (Sonya Suares) want of a grandchild… cue a conflict between obligation and acting, complicated by the beautiful and smart aboriginal woman Sandy (Chenoa Deemal), who spices up John’s life in all sorts of welcomed ways, opening his eyes to even more of the complex realities of race in this country.

With so many characters to its story, some ultimately fall on the wrong side of caricature and in these instances, particularly the supporting performers embrace this with gusto. Mottin, for one, gives a vibrant performance as John’s ocker girlfriend Janelle (one of a number of her smaller roles). Straight-faced in her deliberately rough and uncultivated delivery, she is very funny with speech patterns that make her “John, listen to me,” draw on suburban tropes and caricature of the “Kath and Kim” sort.

“Words are important,” John notes at one stage of the play. And cultural identity themes of pride and political correctness are core concepts as characters are told to be proud of themselves and not let others dilute their identity. Beyond the specifics of character displacements, there is an all-encompassing and appealing message to be proud of who you are, where you are from and what is in your heart.

The script’s use of sneaky puns, euphemisms and tongue twister dialogue means that, although its themes are evident they are not overtly heavied in sacrifice of entertainment. Indeed, humour resonates in exploration of its earnest themes. And in this regard, the work doesn’t hold back. It’s comedy ‘goes there’ with controversial in-your-face phrases to force audience consideration while lightening its themes, and although the snappiness of comic exchanges is compromised by the inability for conversation dialogue to overlap on Zoom, the inclusion of physical comedy as much as possible, compensates for this.

“Lighten Up” is a play with great potential. While some supporting storylines struggle for clarity amongst its determination for comprehensive narrative depiction of colonialism culture, there is enough in its intentions for audiences to engage with and enjoy.

Sweet ’80s sounds

The Sweetest Taboo (Katie Noonan)

The Tivoli

September 19 – 20

Like our first kiss or heartbreak, we all remember the first albums we bought with our own money. Maybe they were something reflectively cringy or perhaps, like Katie Noonan, they were purchased from somewhere cool like Rocking Horse Records in Adelaide Street. Returning to her beloved genre of jazz, Noonan presents this as the organising centre of her show “The Sweetest Taboo”, in which reinterpretations of classic ‘80s songs that shaped her life are presented with her band (Zac Hurren on saxophone, Aaron Jansz on drums and brothers OJ and Steve Newcome on double bass and piano respectively) in a manner that carefully curates the show’s numbers to new life.

From A-ha clip astonishment to hairbrush Queen Cyndi Lauper singalongs, there is much with which audiences of a certain vintage can identify as Noonan anecdotes about the music that has accompanied her journey from opera to jazz, even if it sometimes takes a few moments for gasps of recognition to ripple through the appreciative crowd. And even though some of her early musical heroes are a little unexpected with a set list that includes numbers from, for example, Crowded House, Vince Jones and U2, they somehow all smooth together in the sweetest of ways.

For those unfamiliar, the show takes the audience through the track listing of a new album of old songs, Noonan’s 20th studio album of the same name, which offers interpretation of pop favourites from the Aria Award winning performers formative years. Stripped back readings allow her astonishing voice the centre stage it demands. From the opening strands of a serene and sensitive ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’, the extraordinary beauty of her vocal instrument is undeniable and the time she takes to allow every note to linger, leaves us in no question as to the rarity of her talent. And while numbers like Terrence Trent D’Arby’s soulful gem ‘Sign Your Name’ are stirring in their sultriness, upbeat ones like Icehouse’s ‘Electric Blue’, reimagined with a laid-back Latin flavour and the infectious melodic fun of Eurythmics’ ‘When Tomorrow Comes’ add much to the show’s texture. ‘

Noonan is a generous performer and audience experience is enhanced by her share of the stage with the other musicians. Every artist is given their moment to shine. Most notably, Steve Newcomb makes Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ an especially relevant emotional piano ballad of heartbreaking longing to break free from loneliness and isolation, while Zac Hurren’s saxophone beautifully completes Billy Joel’s ‘Just the Way You Are’, because what is an ‘80s show without a good slap of wailing saxophone solo?

What Katie Noonan has created in “The Sweetest Taboo” is a wonderful place where loving daggy ‘80s love songs and Man of Colours Iva Davies double leather no longer have to be a guilty secret. Stunning vocals and musical rearrangements make for moving reconnection with songs of an era whose music deserves celebration, appropriately now in a grown-up jazz way. More so though, the stripped back ‘80s pop hits have an emotional honesty to their lyrics that might otherwise be missed, so experience allows not only reconnection to our past selves but reconsideration of our own musical tapestries.

Mama Earth mashups

Hot Mess Mama (Emma Dean/Katherine Lyall-Watson)

The Tivoli

September 17 – 18

Mama Earth was once a legend, worshipped by groups like the Aztecs and Druids, back in precented time when people could gather together. Now she’s playing in a converted old bakery in Brisbane as part of the Tivoli’s Brisbane Festival line-up. The world premiere of the cabaret show of the same name from Emma Dean and Katherine Lyall-Watson sees Mama Earth (multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter Emma Dean) showing us what a hot mess diva she has become, dishevelled in the pollution of a trashy plastic bag ball gown.

With consideration of where our rubbish goes cued, we are guided into ‘Girl on Fire’ inset with ‘Rolling in the Deep’ and then ‘Firework’, because musically, “Hot Mess Mama” is very clever its balanced combination of an original score with songs that have been mashed up with well-known pop hits courtesy of lyrical linkage. And the stylistic combinations are quite marvellous, embracing their possibilities to full extent, especially when Dean transitions into Alanis Morissette’s jagged, angsty anthem ‘You Oughta Know’, vocally and on guitar. It’s no wonder Mama Earth drinks like a party girl. And there is certainly a revelry to the show’s early segments, as before she hits reset, she determines to party like it’s 1999 (alas without any Prince song salute), with humanity as a backing band (Mark Angel on guitar, Lucas Clarke on violin and mandolin, Tony Dean on drums, Terry Dixon on bass guitar and Tnee Dyer on keys).

While the show conveys a clearly defined view, articulated from the intersection of music and theatre, it feels underdone by a couple of songs and there are clear spaces into which it can be filled with further improvement. Still, it is carefully curated to examine the serious issue of climate change in a fun way that also leaves us feeling hopeful that the world can recover and strengthen and that we can do it if we work together, like in the show’s call and response number. Like so many of Emma Dean’s recordings, the human spirit remains at the thematic centre of everything, which is the show’s greatest joy.

Dean is a passionate performer with a powerful set of pipes. And the harmonies heard in some of the show’s numbers are simply exquisite. It’s not the serious stuff that might be expected of a show about the environment either, thanks to the quirk of its original concept, energy of its leading lady and the little touch of one-liner humourous interjections from keyboardist extraordinaire Tnee Dyer.

Dean is clearly also a very versatile performer. Her pre-interval set as herself before Mama Earth graces us with her presence (accompanied by Lucas Clarke and Tony Dean), allows Dean to showcase this as she takes the audience from the glitter kittenesque ‘I Am A F*%king Unicorn’ and euphoria of Florence and the Machine’s ‘You’ve Got The Love’ to the beauty of the melodic contemplation ‘Healed by You’ and touching ballad ‘Orange Red’, complete with stirring string accompaniment. Regardless of its base genre, however, every song showcases her astonishing vocals, which mean that audience members are in for a treat.

Very much a festival show, “Hot Mess Mama” is a dynamic, left-of-centre cabaret reminder of the possibility of change. Its unique fusion of styles and sensibilities finds the theatre in music and makes it an infectious experience (#inagoodway), especially for a supportive audience of theatre-goers happy to be able to gather together again in spirit-lifting celebration of all things Brisfest.

Photos c/o – Atmosphere Photography

Smart art authenticity

Red (Ad Astra)

Ad Astra

September 17 – 26

What is red? The answer is multifaceted, audience members discover as the characters of John Logan’s play of the same name debate through a list of the colour’s binary opposition associations – from lipstick to lava and Santa to Satan. The conversation is typical of those between the two-hander’s characters, abstract expressionist American painter Mark Rothko (Francis McMahon), the last artist left of his peers, and his young assistant, recent art school graduate Ken (Richard Lund).

You don’t need to know about Rothko to recognise his type almost immediately as he bombasts his new assistant as to the nature of his daily duties, helping to stretch the canvases, mix the paints, clean the brushes and apply the ground colour…. not painting. Cantankerous and prone to titanic self-absorption, the brash artist projects a paranoid and dogmatic indifference to the world and lack of awareness of others, including Ken, (who he never actually addresses by name), as he monologues about the patient process of art-making and the temporal nature of his painting compared to traditional representational artworks.

While John Logan’s Tony Award winning play is taut in its pacing, it is very much a ‘talky’ work, full of scholarly dialogue and ideas for the audience to wade through. It doesn’t shy away from its intelligence in contemplation about what art is and how it is made, including references to Nietzsche, Sophocles, Schopenhauer, Shakespeare, Byron, Matisse and Van Gogh, just to name a few.

Just as Rothko’s paintings are about the tension between their blocks of colour, so the play itself is about contrasting artistic viewpoints. Drama builds as Ken boldly questions his employer’s theories of colour and, by association, his integrity in accepting a lucrative commission to paint a coordinated series of paintings for the interior of the upmarket Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram Building on Park Avenue.

The setting is the pre-eminent painter’s late 1950s New York studio and while the era is never made too apparent, beyond use of a black rotary telephones, Set/Costume Designer Bill Haycock’s transformation of the small theatre space into an artist’s studio complete with an imposing set of replica canvasses, is impressive. And lighting (consultant David Walters), works well to create nooks and crannies within the set. Indeed, attention to detail is evident throughout and immediately apparent from introduction of characters attired in paint speckled clothing and shoes.

The relationship between the two characters is what endures at the core of the work’s drama. To Rothko, artistry is a job more than a calling; from his perspective Ken is never more than an employee and Jackson Pollock was but a tragic bohemian. Still, under Jesse Richardson’s direction, the duo works well together, which we best see in an exhilarating sequence in which prime a blank canvas with a base layer, enthusiastically splashing on the colour to the sounds of a cresendoing classic music score.

Not a lot happens in “Red”; its drama is not plot-drive but rather comes from its character studies, so it is appropriate that the McMahon and Lund give such powerful performances. As the bullish Rothko, McMahon presents a convincing, unrelenting portrait of the tormented visionary artist, commanding attention with grandiose movements and exclamation. Lund, meanwhile, engages the audience in sincere articulation of Ken’s nuanced later less-enigmatic arguments, for example, of the conflicts of previous art movements. His layered but still-contained performance elevates the character of Ken to being more than just Rothko’s foil when he shares a gripping revelation of the details of an event from his past.

The art of quality theatre does not come easy, which makes the experience of Ad Asta’s “Red” all the more rewarding. While the play is often intense, there are some lighter comic moments to ease the dramatic tension, such as when the moody American painter explains why he doesn’t ever paint outdoors.

This is excellent theatre presented with an authenticity that makes it feel like a voyeuristic glimpse into Rothko’s life at a point in time that sees him fearing that one day ‘the black will swallow the red’ in foreshadow of the circumstances of his death just over a decade later. And just as tension of the expressive blocks of colour contrasts of Rothko’s trademark large, floating rectangles seem to engulf the spectator, so too are audience members easily absorbed into his “Red” story through its enduring intimations on mortality and the philosophical truths of human drama.