Danish danger

The Hamlet Apocalypse (The Danger Ensemble)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

August 9 – 19

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“Hamlet” represents one of the stage’s greatest challenges. The complex work’s sense of reality is shaped by powerful, poetic words and language with some of the most popular lines ever written, and there is the challenge of its duration as the longest of Shakespeare’s plays. The Danger Ensemble’s contemporary performance about an ensemble of actors (Chris Beckey, Caroline Dunphy, Nicole Harvey, Thomas Hutchins, Polly Sara, Peta Ward and Mitch Wood) staging the play on the eve of the apocalypse may be much shorter (though still with room for Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and a horse) than its source material, but is as complex as ever as the play unravels and more of the actors’ real-life personal revelations and fears begin to emerge; they have a version of “Hamlet” that they have rehearsed, but as a countdown gets closer to zero the show has to be abridged and personal issues sorted.

Presenting any derivative of “Hamlet” is always going to be a trial of strength. And “The Hamlet Apocalypse” certainly realises its intention of taking the play of ideas to a new and exciting place. Although it is probably best appreciated by those familiar enough with the original text to be able to follow the now-fragmented narrative, this can also work to its disadvantage as the loss of much of the play’s musical language and dramatic poetry is lamented.

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This is a “Hamlet” for the now generation, in which the line between fiction and reality blurs. It’s not an easy transition, however, the experimental work keeps a sense of tragedy in its performers’ breaks of the fourth wall. There is still touch on themes of the power of death and the value of life, but humour too, added to, rather than derived from within the text. Usually it works, such as in a hilarious group ‘imaginary eating’ scene. At other times, however, it is at the expense of key moments and emotional expression, such as when Hamlet’s Act Two share of his descent into worthless melancholy is overshadowed, visually and verbally by a background Claudius and Gertrude spitting wine over each other.

A show of such layering, theatricality and physicality, of course, needs a skilled cast and in this regard there are no weak links. Thomas Hutchins makes for a commanding new King Claudius, second husband to Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (Caroline Dunphy) in contrast to his constant line-reminder interjections to others as ‘himself’. As the titular Hamlet, Mitch Wood gives a fine performance that provides feel more of frustration than introspection. And Chris Beckey gives a nuanced performance that makes for a memorable visual presence, often absorbed as one with the aesthetic.

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The show’s aesthetics are absorbing thanks to the sophisticated shading of Ben Hughes’ lighting design and Oscar Clark’s detailed, yet versatile costumes. Together, they make early scenes particularly stylistic in the slow-motion sensibility that acts in contrast to the big, hot mess of its conclusion (#inagoodway). Constantly we are reminded that we are watching a play. Indeed, never can the audience relax into the work, especially in the cresendoing chaos of concluding scenes as our attention is torn from ‘character’ to ‘character’ in simultaneous competition for our focus. And while the blinding visual flash and screeching soundscape countdown from ten to one that punctuates proceedings continues as novelty throughout, eliciting disruptive audience responses, this is probably the point.

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“The Hamlet Apocalypse” may be ‘Hamlet but not as you know it’, but it represents all that is interesting about experimental theatre and the essence of Director Steven Mitchell Wright’s characteristic vision, last seen the company’s wicked “Macbeth”.  Its rich all-encompassing aesthetic makes for rewarding theatrical experience. And in celebration of The Danger Ensemble’s ten year anniversary, it is an excellent choice of show for a return season.

Photos c/o – Morgan Roberts Photography

Jimi joy

My Name is Jimi (Queensland Theatre)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

July 22 – August 13

Jimi Bani is a ‘remote area boy’ from Torres Strait (not PNG or Fiji). His home, Mabuiag Island, has a rich history and culture that Jimi and his family are trying to keep alive amidst the cultural chaos of the changing modern world. And ‘My Name is Jimi’ really is family affair as Jimi performs alongside his son Dmitri, mother Agnes, and grandmother Petharie with his brothers Conwell and Richard Bani.

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As he draws directly on the experiences of his family and their role as leaders of the Wagadagam tribe of Mabuiag Island, through stories span the generations, Bani takes audiences on the most unique and appealing of journeys. Unlike any other theatre experience (#inagoodway), the show at once celebrates the legacy of Jimi’s father, an honoured chief, and promotes the need for preservation of cultural and family history.

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The show is full of eclectic, but important little details, meaning that there’s plenty on offer to audience members of all ages or theatrical preferences. Dapper-suited, Jimi (and his brothers) give audiences some memorable booty-shaking dance moments in accompaniment of the show’s disco segment and action moves effortlessly about the stage as digital projections fill the blank back wall. Handheld cameras film live puppetry from richly-detailed dioramas situated either side of the stage, in share of some of the childhood fables of Mabuiag.

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Song, dance and fire-side stories all add to storytelling and also, at times, humour. A highlight comes, for example, from within the show’s examination of contemporary cultural influences, as 15-year-old son Dmitri Ahwang-Bani demonstrates the reality of typical dress these days (because they ‘don’t get around in traditional clothing’), as if part of an anthropological exhibit. And yet there are also many engaging moments watching the family’s passion in performing in traditional dress.

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With its important messages regarding the role of culture in identity, “My Name is Jimi”, has an immediate appeal to school groups, and much to offer younger audience members through the engagement of its varied theatrical devices. There is an honest appeal to the intimacy of its family stories, meaning that when Jimi’s mother and grandmother wave hello in introduction, audience members all around are waving back from within the darkness. And the show’s memorable final family image lasts beyond its close in reminder of what is important in life.

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“My Name is Jimi” is story-telling is at its finest, personal, powerful and special beyond just its four generations of one family on stage together. Writer and lead actor, Jimi Bani is charismatic and the story he shares is charming, but also informative (beginning with its introductory glossary of names from family tree relationships) and important. Under Jason Klarwein’s instinctive direction, the cast’s generous, honest performances offer audience member contemplation of big issues but also joyous appreciation of their own family ties.

Photos c/o – Veronica Sagredo

Ambiguity’s absorption

Blackrock (La Boite Theatre Company and QUT Creative Industries)

La Boite Theatre Company, Roundhouse Theatre

July 22 – August 12

Since premiering in 1995, Nick Enright’s “Blackrock” has found a place in both the Australian drama cannon and on high school drama syllabuses nationwide. And, 20 years after its first presentation of the play, La Boite Theatre Company’s 2017 production shows just how sadly still relevant its social themes of mateship, misogyny and violence are.

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From the show’s opening scene, the production explodes with energy as teens in the (fictional) Australian beachside working-class suburb of Blackrock welcome home the prodigal, dangerous, local surfing legend Ricko (Karl Stuifzand). After an unsupervised beach party soon afterwards, 15-year-old Tracy Warner is found dead, raped by three boys, her head bashed in with a rock. Having seen the incident and done nothing, proverbial good bloke Jared (Ryan Hodson) is filled with guilt yet remains silent, which leads to the breakdown of his relationships with both his girlfriend Rachel (Jessica Potts) and his mother Diane (Christen O’Leary). Events are made even more shocking by knowledge of the narrative’s origins, based as it is on the real-life rape and murder of a 14-year-old Newcastle girl, Leigh Leigh which occurred during teenage birthday party celebrations at Stockton Surf Club in November 1989.

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In a unique collaboration between La Boite and QUT Creative Industries, the play presents the impact of a violent crime on a close-knit community as an engrossing and moving experience thanks to powerful performances from a talented cast of established actors and QUT near-graduates alike. The script is action packed in its initial scenes as the talented cast brings Enright’s characters to vivid life, even if the deliberate colloquial language of g-dropping initially jars in its over-emphasis.

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Powerful performances from across the large cast make for a moving experience of a story in which everyone is a victim, with the third year QUT actors allows for fresh audience responses. Thomas Cossettini gives a considered performance as Toby, torn in his determination of the difference between a friend and a mate. So too, as the victim’s friend Cherie, Ebony Nave shows compassion and emotion, especially in an initial, absorbing monologue. And Christen O’Leary and Amy Ingram show their experience as Toby’s fraught mother Diane and Cherie’s well-meaning, bordering on overbearing, mother Glenys.

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Given its morally-ambiguous and thus compelling story, “Blackrock” is a demanding play to present and Director Todd Macdonald meets the challenge by giving the work plenty of pace. Transitions are swift and effective, and digital projections add much to the initial party atmosphere, however, while staging some scenes upon a raised wooden platform works well for those seated high in the theatre-in-the-round stalls, at other times it compromises vision and thus detracts from immersion in the play’s moments.

Sadly, twenty years after “Blackrock” was first published, its themes remain relevant, cementing its worth as a modern Australian classic, as shocking, emotional and confronting as ever and not in need to overt attempts to emphasise relevance with incorporation of deliberate Queensland references. In its exploration of the impact of the story’s brutal crime on a small community and, in particular, on the only witness as he wrestles with his conscience and the laws of loyalty considered sacred among male teenagers, the show offers audiences a gripping theatrical experience but also much to talk about afterwards regarding youth culture, cyclical violence, peer pressure and the objectification of women.

Photos c/o – Dylan Evans

Windermere wit

Lady Windermere’s Fan (New Farm Nash Theatre)

The Brunswick Room, Merthyr Road Uniting Church

July 14 – August 5

dance.jpgOscar Wilde’s ‘play about a good woman’, “Lady Windermere’s Fan” is the perfect piece for a Sunday afternoon on-stage comedy… as perfect as the pink roses that the titular Mrs Windermere (Corinne Fixter) is pruning pre-show as the audience enters. It is all very gentile in manners and manner, even down to Brenda White’s well-chosen costumes, as the lady of the house entertains visitors ahead of her birthday ball that evening, proudly showing the fan that her husband (Chris Robinson) has bought her as gift.

As the plot progresses, Mrs Windamere’s friend Lord Darlington (Scott West) compliments her in poor attempt to (at least initially) disguise his romantic feelings and Mrs Duchess Carlisle (Phillipa Bowe) shares some close-to-home gossip. Unbelieving of the claim that her husband has been making repeated visits (and monetary payments) the complex Mrs Erlynne (Sally Jenkins), Mrs Windamere dismisses the claims, but sets upon investigating and ultimately confronting her husband. The story develops with revelation to the audience regarding Mrs Erlynne’s identity and a consequential reminder of how appearances can be deceptive.

As Mrs Windamere and her husband, Fixter and Robinson anchor the show with both their wonderful rapport and fiery conflict. Bowe makes for a memorable Duchess Carlisle too, animated in her Lady Bracknell type judgment, passive aggression and the gossipy suggestions which set off a chain of events. Still, as is usually the case with Wilde’s aristocratic satires, everything becomes secondary to the script and it is easy to appreciate the play’s role as the initiator of Wilde’s huge popularity as a playwright. The themes are adult in their social ridicule and intellectually explored through the contrasting symbolism of the fan of its title, which becomes as much a sign of deception as one of decorum. And the writing allows characters to engage in the most delightfully witty banter about relationships and marriage.

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“Lady Windermere’s Fan” was first performed in London in 1892 as a satire on Victorian morality and gender double-standards. Yet, it is remains relevant in its juxtaposition of high society and popular culture and human desire for scandal at the expense of others. To relocate it to a Brisbane setting seems, therefore, unnecessary and ultimately serves only to jar the work from its bubble of English manners, so maintained throughout all other aspects.

The four act play breezes through in an easy two hours with just the right amount of character and charisma, never taking itself too seriously (because ‘life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about’). Indeed, its charm serves not only to remind audiences of the masterful wit and imagination of Oscar Wilde, but also gives chance to enjoy a humour-filled couple of hours as part of New Farm Nash Theatre’s ‘Laughter is the Best Medicine’ 2017 season.

Guilty pleasure pop

The Bodyguard The Musical (John Frost, Michael Harrison and David Ian)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

July 19 – August 13

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“The Bodyguard The Musical” begins with a bang… literally… with gunshots and a full production number of lasers, lights and flame projections as superstar Rachel Marron (Paulini Curuenavuli of Australian Idol fame in her musical theatre debut) rocks out ‘Queen of the Night’. The melodramatic story then (more or less) follows its source material, the 1992 Warner Bros film starring Whitney Houston as the pop diva and Kevin Cosner as former Secret Service agent Frank Farmer, the reluctant bodyguard brought in to protect her (and later falling into a relationship with her) when an obsessive stalker starts making threats.

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The movie spawned one of the best-selling soundtracks of all time and it is upon this merit that the musical relies, ebbing and flowing through upbeat numbers and ballads alike. Unlike “Dirty Dancing”, this screen-to-stage adaptation does not attempt to provide an on-stage carbon copy of the film. The original screenplay has been significantly reduced to make space for more of Whitney Houston’s back-catalogue. This makes for unsatisfying narrative, but also a pleasing live experience, packed with pop classics, including from the contribution of Prinnie Stevens as Rachel’s jealous, overlooked sister Nicki, whose impressive vocals make ‘Saving All My Love For You’ a highlight.

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Humour comes courtesy of added scenes such as one set in a karaoke bar where a trio of tipsy girls sing their way through Houston’s ‘Where Do Broken Hearts Go?’ before unsuspectingly hearing it from Rachel Marron herself. It also provides opportunity for soap star Kip Gamblin to contribute more but a commanding presence to his bodyguard role, as he reluctantly delivers a deliberately pitch-poor (and very funny) ‘I Will Always Love You’.

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Curuenavuli is no Whitney Houston, and she’s clearly more singer than actor (especially with addition of American accent), but vocally she more than does justice to the central role. She is blistering in performance of Houston power ballads like ‘I Have Nothing’ and her delivery of the soundtrack’s carrier soul ballad ‘I Will Always Love You’ is flawless, beginning with goosebumpy a cappella introduction before soaring (literally) into the chorus.

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As stage musicals go “The Bodyguard The Musical” has its share of flaws in staging, pacing and acting performance. And its wafer-thin script is full of clichés. But still it serves as the guiltiest of pleasures, particularly in moments like a club performance scene mash-up of ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’ and ‘So Emotional’. And when the ensemble has audience members on their feet for an encore ‘I Wanna Dance’ reprise, it is a sing-along that carries out into the foyer post-show. Indeed, the main reason to see the “The Bodyguard The Musical” is its score, both of songs from the 1992 movie and Houston’s extensive pop catalogue.

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The mirth of mediocrity

Disappointments (Judith Lucy and Denise Scott)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

July 19 – 30

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Comedians Denise Scott and Judith Lucy are at that age now where they can’t be bothered doing anything, especially if it involves being present and mindful. As such, they are more into lie-down than stand-up comedy, welcoming the audience to “Disappointments” from the comfort of on-stage beds, with oversized wine glasses alongside (thank-you bendy straws).

The mirth that follows allows the pair to reflect on their lives, full as they are of disappointments, focussing on oversharing about the crushing discontent of being of that certain age. No topic is too taboo, especially when they venture out into the nervous audience for ad-libbed chats around arthritis, dick pics and menopause, amongst other topics.

Scott also talks of her days on television’s “Winners and Losers” and gives amusing accounts of being mis-recognised both in Australian and abroad, while Lucy  shares a clever riff about nostalgia, taking particular aim at Rick Springfield’s 80’s hit song ‘Jessie’s Girl’. And then things descend into a volley of insults to each other, before changing into their notorious (and hilarious) nude suits. For all the show’s self-loathing and self-doubt, however, what resonates is its celebration of life (including the saggy bits) and essential ponder as to why we hate ageing but love nostalgia, evidenced as they take aim at the idolisation of youth in our culture.

Comedy doesn’t get much better than these Aussie treasures telling it as it is, bounding off each other and the audience with razor sharp wit. While there is a lot of laugh-out-loud humour, there is also an essential message about embracing life’s disappointments and the distinctions that exist between our social media selves and real life experiences. As such, “Disappointments” will leave you not only face-aching from laughter but fit to fist pump the sky “The Breakfast Club” style, in embrace of your own aging mediocrity.

PM pleasure

Joh for PM (Jute Theatre Company and Brisbane Powerhouse)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

July 7 – 16

Like other states, we in Queensland have a distinctness and difference beyond just climate. And in recent history there is nothing more uniquely Queensland than the era of our contradictory longest-serving Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Given his uncompromising conservatism and corruption, mounting a show based on his reign is a brave move, but one which, in the hands of Jute Theatre Company and Brisbane Powerhouse, pays off in the easy entertainment that is “Joh for PM”.

The framing device of the new musical by Stephen Carleton and Paul Hodge is the 1987 campaign launch of Joh’s grandly-ambitious, but ultimately-doomed, Canberra bid, complete with leggy lounge singer host Nikki Van Den Hoogenbranden (Chloe Dallimore), assisted by Kurt Phelan and Stephen Hurst, all dressed in gaudy ‘80s pink spandex, featuring all the stars of the day (#notreally).

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The musical comedy that emerges satirises the events that occurred during the Bjelke-Petersen era, following his early farm life, religious upbringing and courtship of wife Flo, as well as his ‘accidental’ assent to the political heights from which he would fall following that Chris Masters’ ‘Moonlight State’ ABC 4 Corners report and the resulting Fitzgerald enquiry. The original songs that support the narrative are all clever, catchy and engaging, especially when, in ‘We Don’t Do That Nonsense Here’ (about the intended Queensland response to 1971’s controversial six week rugby union tour by the South African Springboks to Australia) audience members are involved as placard-carrying protestors.

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Colin Lane (of Lano and Woodley fame) is wonderful as the titular Joh, capturing his bumbling country-bumpkin manner of mixed metaphors in an embodiment rather than impression of his larger-than-life character. And Barb Lowing is perfect as the forgetful Flo, especially in her later years; her ‘Pumpkin Scone Diplomacy’ rap is the icing of the Iced VoVo as Joh would say. Indeed, Director Kris Stewart makes excellent use of every cast member’s talents. As press secretary Allen Callaghan, Kurt Phelan is appropriately Machiavellian, especially in his Henry Higgins type training of how Joh needs to respond to the media by repetition for emphasis and to buy time, in the memorable “Feed the Chooks” musical number.

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Although the Powerhouse Theatre stage is slightly tight, the razzle dazzle retro staging works a treat. Music follows the time period of the story and enhances the satire with catchy tunes and lyrics that make it difficult not to sing and toe-tap along in pleasure to memorable numbers like ‘Don’t You Worry About That’, ‘Joh For PM’ and ‘White Shoe Shuffle’.

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Thanks to a witty script, appropriately, the show is packed with political references for appreciation by Queenslanders of a certain age, whether that be that they remember the oppressive state of emergency response to Springbok protests or just how the 1985 Sequeb electricity strikes impacted upon their “The Goodies” and “Monkey” tv viewing. While its narrative is obviously rooted in particular times and places of the past, however, the show also contains some contemporary digs at other Australian politicians that are well-received by the audience.

Although those audience members who have read Matt Condon’s “Three Crooked Kings” trilogy may be bothered by a perceived downplay of the stormy time of our history, its surrealism makes it perfect subject matter for satire. As sure as eggs and eggs, as Joh would say, humour is a defining part of Queensland culture and “Joh for PM” stands as evidence of this.