Elephant absurdity

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The Turquoise Elephant (Queensland Theatre)

June 23

Queensland Theatre’s Play Club continues to find ways to connect with its audiences through the emerging form of online presentations, for the foreseeable future, of great Australian plays. Most recent of these intimate renditions to inspire collective imaginations is the live play reading of “The Turquoise Elephant” by Stephen Carleton over Zoom webinar.

The work’s description of a “shockingly black, black, black political farce” that is “urgent, contemporary and perilously close to being real” is on-point. The colourful story is set in an Australia of the near future, but it could be any first world country such is the universality of it now-more-than-ever important themes. Melbourne has flooded, temperatures are regularly around 50 degrees, more animals are extinct, the last ever snow is melting. The typhooned world is at a tipping point, meaning that environment resettlement refugees and natural disaster tourists have become the norm.

The world into which we are dropped, however, is that of a wealthy Sydney socialite and Macquarie family matriarch Augusta (Andrea Moor) who heads up a conservative movement which denies the human impact of climate change, but who has a climate change refugee, Visi (Nicole Hopkins) as her new maid. While Melbourne is being evacuated and citizens of other cities are in mass panic, Augusta’s place is a formidable fortress of sanctuary that the billionairess shares with her niece Basra (Violette Ayad, in a Queensland Theatre debut), a wannabe aspirational blogger advocate for sustainable change. Enter Augusta’s sister, Aunt Olympia (Barb Lowing)…. and what an entrance it is, despite its occurrence off screen.

While The Cultural Front for the Environment is protesting government action, with undercover operatives ready to resort to attempted murder, there is a proposal to move the country inland and to higher ground. The sisters’ interests are piqued when charming American corporate-type Jeff Cleveland (Thomas Larkin) smooths in with memorable display of mutual affection with Olympia, before offering a ticket out through his Brave New World ‘New Eden’ plan to rebuild humanity from the ground up. Given how disease is wiping out some cities, the timing is particular urgent and so a philosophical conflict ensues. The battle back and forth between Augusta and Basra over climate change is one of self-proclaimed pragmatist vs idealistic moralist and it soon becomes clear that not only is natural selection is to be determined by wealth, but the end of days represents to barrier to making money.

Flamboyant Olympia is a gloriously hedonistic character of operatic excess, enthusiastic for the apocalypse, as long as she can be a voyeur to the world’s environmental collapse. And, uninhibited by the play reading format, Lowing vividly inhabits her flibbertigibbety in every gesture, movement, facial expression and reaction. The sisters are both outrageous characters, obviously fun to play and seeing Moor and Lowing together for the first time ‘on stage’ is certainly worth the wait. One sister doesn’t hear unwanted things, while the other doesn’t see them. Together they are a real treat, bringing to life the playwright’s clever, perfectly-pitched dialogue. There is clear wit to its detail, replicated, in this instance, in costumes and simple props that add immeasurably to the unique, pseudo-stage experience.

Across 11 fast-paced scenes, the changes of which are signalled by Brian Lucas as a masked figure, the story is an absurdist sprint in a “Rhinoceros” sort of way. The elephant of its title ‘appears’ early but resonates throughout as a metaphor of what is happening in the dying world’s room right now. In fact, the titular elephant, is the most vital character, requiring only audience imagination and personal directorial choice in its realisation.

“You’re all crazy!” Visi screams at point and indeed this is true, but what would be the fun otherwise? And Daniel Evans’s direction both maintains the required momentum and balances the ridiculous absurdity and intelligent sublimity of the work’s wild script and wonderful characters, making for a thoroughly entertaining work that we will hopefully see realised on stage proper again sooner rather than later.

Although it was written in 2016, “The Turquoise Elephant” is particularly pertinent at this point in time. It is clearly stuffed with social commentary about global capitalism and climate change denialism, and coincidental current political references that show how we really all should be crying like the elephant.

Begotten beauty

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Begotten (Minola Theatre)

With live theatre on hold, companies are having to find fresh ways to connect with audiences. Play readings and radio plays are a perfect way of achieving this, as Anywhere Festival and the UQ Theatre Festival have recognised in their 2020 online festivals, which have included Minola Theatre’s “Begotten”, available for download on a pay-what-you-will basis.

The appropriately-title “Begotten” is a powerful one-woman work in which playwright Bianca Butler Reynolds explores the complex, changing role of women over time… the 100-year history of a family, told through the eyes of five women: Alice, Eileen, Clea, Hazel and Laoise. Adapted into a five-part radio drama format specifically for the COVID-19 pandemic, the work, which is performed by Bianca Butler Reynolds, gives audiences glimpse into the feminine lineage and associated shattering and mending of lives and hearts alike.

We begin in 2019 with Alice on a bus, reflecting in monologue. As she considers her relationship and childhood, and takes us back to memories of her mother Eileen, it is through flippant feelings about beards, but big issues too. Then it is Eileen, reflecting on emerging troubles in her marriage, before her mother’s twin sister Clea assumes the story, then their long-suffering immigrant English wartime mother Hazel and, in turn, her Irish mother Laoise in 1919.  While the changes of perspective are not initially clear, they soon become easy to follow, especially for those familiar with the show’s blurb.

With no visual component, works such as this depend on dialogue, music and sound effects to help the listener imagine the characters and story. In this regard, “Begotten” is a powerful auditory force. The multiple one-womaness of its monologue retelling, makes its experience like that of an audiobook, authenticated by a richly textured soundscape of sound effects and ambient noise to assist in establishing the sense of place that is at the core of its contemplation of the idea of home (post production sound design and editing by Siobhan Finniss). Voices in character mimicry as part of the narrator’s retelling of memories and the use of pause to punctuate the story also aid with this. As well as locations, time is easily established through subtle mentions in hint as to its eras, like reference to the Seekers, the Vietnam draft and Blitz air-raids, which feed the imagination of the listener.

While human beings have been sharing information orally for tens of thousands of years, the distractions of our modern experiences make mental sojourns easily require the need to refocus our attention. Thankfully, “Begotten” is well-written, with the effective description of little details to evoke an authenticity that adds to its appeal. The work does come with a content warning as to its adult themes, coarse language and references to domestic violence. Indeed, its detailed descriptions of domestic violence are quite confronting and contribute much to the sadness that settles across the piece… sadness but also a satisfaction at the ultimate, beauty tapestry that emerges as the women’s histories strand together over a century. There is a particular intimacy in listening to a character’s thoughts with only your own imagination to build upon them and with five distinct characters in its story, the work’s 85-minute duration seems to fly by in the way that all good plays should.

Adaptation celebration

Harlequin (Brisbane Music Festival)

June 20

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The second performance of the 2020 Brisbane Music Festival Streamed Series (running from June to October), “Harlequin” offers a classical take on contemporary music, featuring rising star flautist Jemima Drews, UK-based music-theatre performer Laura Raineri and classical pianist Alex Raineri, the festival’s Artistic Director.

To begin Jemima Drew’s performance of Herbert Hamilton Harty’s imaginative ‘In Ireland’ musical homage to the composer’s home country entices audiences as it wistfully rises its fantasy to some joyous Celtic places, with Alex Raineri’s peppy piano ripples providing a personality-filled accompaniment. The number’s tempo affords the perfect platform for flautist Jemima Drews to show her command of the instrument. Similarly, she showcases the light and shadow of Carl Vine’s contemporary Australian work, ‘Sonata for Flute and Piano’, emphasising its unusual register combination of light, lyrical melodies and lively rhythms.

The virtuosity of these opening numbers is complemented by a selection of well-known musical theatre and popular songs. Indeed, the numbers that then follow are more familiar from a popularist perspective as Laura Raineri gives us a soulful ‘I’ve Put a Spell on You’ with moody and evocatively-rich vocals, before a beautiful and tender ‘Moon River’ of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” fame (or “Sex and The City” for those of a different vintage), thanks also to Alex Raineri’s melancholic piano input.

Musical theatre moments follow with numbers from shows such as “Kiss Me Kate” and “Into the Woods”, before an arresting, eccentric and somewhat jarring sidestep through Amy Beth Kirsten’s curious ‘Pirouette on a Moon Sliver’, in which Jemima Drew is a vocalising flautist in zealous character study of the obsessive commedia dell’arte character, Harlequin. The best is saved for last though with Laura Raineri’s compelling, powerful but also appropriately fragile vocal performance of the contagiously melodic ‘Waving Through a Window’ from “Dear Evan Hansen” aka my new favourite thing from a Broadway visit last year. Finally, a beautifully reflective ‘Hallelujah’, both reminds audience members of the significance of Leondard Cohen’s legacy as an artist, as much as it platforms Laura Raineri’s formidable vocals.

“Harlequin” is a perfect show for lovers of music in all of its moods and while certainly nothing can replace the magic of live performance, it illustrates how music can still serve as a powerful storytelling vehicle, worthy of celebration now perhaps more than ever. The Brisbane Music Festival, now in its third year, is, in 2020, featuring ten streamed concerts with an intimate event such as this one each fortnight. And regardless of the new endeavour of its now-digital format, if “Harlequin” is any indication, the adapted festival promises continued shared celebration of music that dances, breathes, uplifts, haunts and stimulates.

Moment-to-moment messages

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In a Moment (Tim Jackman and Tammy Tresillian)

“The trick is to enjoy the good and know that even the very, very bad … they’re just … moments.” This is the message at the core of the bittersweet and tender “In a Moment”. The mostly two-hander show, the second part of a special A Night at the Theatre with Anywhere Festival double bill of online readings as part of UQ Theatre Festival online, is full of personality but also a quiet and appealing dignity.

This aptly-titled tale is of an unlikely twenty-year friendship between an uptight accountant and a contemplative homeless man who share sandwiches and sagacity during their lunches sitting on a park bench. And while there is certainly no substitute for experiencing theatre in real life, the play is certainly still the thing, even if it is in the form of a reading, with skilled performers still able to bring out the intent, mood and characterisation of a piece. Tim Jackman, in particular, is excellent, conveying natural speech rhythms as he goes from quoting Oscar Wilde to offering comfort to his daily lunchtime companion. He not only physicalises his character, but he conveys the intentions of unseen stage directions, making the emotion of his earlier losses evident beneath the happiness he has with life living alone in a park. As his lunchtime companion, Tammy Tresillian brings the sandwiches and “Wuthering Heights” words to what becomes a twenty-year friendship that ultimately changes to course of both of their lives.

With effective dialogue, pacing and flow, the 60-minute show flies by what seems to be the shortest of times. Like the simplest of pleasures it advocates, it is funny and moving and full of small details that contribute to its quiet insight about the cycles of life and value of soulful connection. And even with its revisions, it is easy to appreciate the one act play’s long-listing for the Queensland Premier’s Drama Award 2015/16, following its successful seasons in Brisbane and Sydney, because if theatre is about human experience and relationships, then this is theatre at is simplest and most effective, that keeps its audience interested on a moment-to-moment basis. It hooks the audience immediately, and includes comforting surprises and discoveries along the way to its insightful ending, creating a powerful bond between its storyline, performers and audience.

Rebel recall

Rebel Tour (Stephen Vagg)

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Brisbane stories are great theatrical fodder. And although Stephen Vagg’s “Rebel Tour” is an Australian tale, the recall of Springbok rugby union protests that it evokes, gives it a special resonance for Sunshine staters. Rather than rugby union, however, the aptly-titled fictionalised account is about the ‘rebel’ cricket tours to South Africa in the early ‘80s, presented in a rehearsed, public online reading as part of UQ Theatre Festival online as a night at the theatre with Anywhere Festival.

The context of the controversy is given early on for those perhaps too young to remember the era; due to the Apartheid system of institutionalised racial segregation in South Africa, international sanctions means that the International Cricket Council has placed a moratorium on international cricket teams undertaking tours of the country. Enter a group of rogue Australian cricket players recruited at the behest of the South African Cricket Board for a so-called ‘Rebel tour’ to the African nation to play a series of matches against the South African team.

Far from being a cricket tragic like those terry-towelling-hat-wearers on the hill, Charlotte Greg (Cindy Nelson) hates the sport. Her interest as new executive at Packer-owned PBL Marketing is to get the job done. Young Australian Cricket Board executive, Ray Taylor (Ryan O’Connor) has more idealistic ambitions, especially given his connections with the players. Having been dropped due to his poor form, for example, ex-captain (Robert Wainwright) only needs one more great innings to return to glory. And an Ashes contract amendment about not singing agreement with other cricketing bodies, has everyone worried, especially with players being approached with big blood money (or security, depending on your perspective and if you want Kerry Packer as an ally or enemy… because while the ACB runs cricket, it is Packer who pays the bills). Mike Whitney and Greg Matthews have said no, and Thommo has changed his mind and while the Australian team has taken a continued hit, losing six tests in a row, players like Steve Waugh are on the horizon.

Thanks to the achievement of the capable cast in inhabiting the story’s distinct characters, the play moves quickly (a little too quickly perhaps), but without any real script climax to wallop us along; a rushed meeting is called because someone has to take the fall, although for the cricketers, the message remains clear… do the tour and never be picked again.

Familiar figures feature throughout, not just from the sports world with mention of then-lawyer Malcolm Turnbull as Packer’s adviser. Even so, audience members don’t have to be familiar with the era to be entertained by the work. In fact, this probably adds to the appeal as its revelation of the political scene of the time and epilogue as to the consequences, are, in themselves, interesting. And a well-placed nod to the notion of women’s cricket gives an added resonance. Just as 2017’s “Joh for PM” illustrated, defining parts of our history are the perfect subject matter for our theatre and with that in mind, one can only look forward to hopefully seeing the work on stage soon.

Life’s legacy live

The Story of the Miracles at Cookie’s Table (Queensland Theatre)

June 2

If you are missing live theatre productions since the advent of social restrictions, then it is time to join the club… Queensland Theatre’s Play Club to be precise, which in its most recent event featured a live reading of “The Story of the Miracles at Cookie’s Table”, Wesley Enoch’s universal love story about the destructive and restorative relationships between generations.

In the 1870s a girl is born under a tree — her birth tree — chosen to give her strength and wisdom. When the tree is cut down she follows it into the white man’s world, working as a cook for the big house on the island. Her tree has become a miracle kitchen table, one she will pass down through successive generations as a legacy — a way of carving out her family stories. Now, generations later, a young man and his mother fight for ownership of the table and audiences get to hear all about it in a lived streamed play reading of a domestic drama spanning four generations of a Stradbroke Island family’s history.

The titular table serves as a solid motif throughout the work, as a symbol of sharing but also separation. And the play is crafted to be equal parts beautifully-moving and wickedly-funny as it unravels what is essentially a universal story about the relationships between generations, at times heartbreaking in its emotions. The three-hander is full of flashbacks and stories of the past, and even without staging in support, the story sits easily between eras, thanks to the skill of its performers under direction of Isaac Drandic.

Despite not being buoyed along by audience reactions, the actors all play off each other expertly, capturing the moments of their relationships despite their few rehearsal opportunities. Their pacing also reflects their characters; in her share of extended family stories, Roxanne McDonald’s god-fearing Faith is considered in juxtaposition to her energetic but also damaged daughter Annie, (the spirited singer who has been estranged for many years) but is also fiery in confrontation of her daughter’s parenting. McDonald captures the essence of grandmotherly care and concern, but even in memory all is not necessarily as it seems as daughter Annie’s stories embellish their way around the underlying secrets that create the story’s tension. Indeed, there is more than one side to a story and as we work through the layered tale. Even with just her words, Ursula Yovich gives a charismatic performance, complete with precise comic timing in banter with her bureaucrat son Nathan, (an assured and versatile Guy Simon), the last in the family’s line. Her pitch-perfect delivery procures comic potential from every line, especially in her frank discussion and questioning of her son’s sex life.

Abandoned by his mother Annie and raised by his grandmother, Nathan left the island for university and a government career, until his grandmother’s funeral brings him back to country and family for the first time in years, evoking themes akin to those of Enoch’s “The Seven Stages of Grieving”. Whereas Annie just wants her son to talk to her, he just wants the table and won’t stop asking about it. Cue the conflict and insult trades of the ‘I brought you into the world and I can take you out’ type, but also realisation, for audience members, of the similarity of their stories and reasons for turning away from their island home.

“The Story of the Miracles at Cookie’s Table” is entertaining but also thought-proving theatre and, even in this format, it is easy to see why the play won the 2005 Patrick White Playwrights Award. The fact that its powerful storytelling transcends so easily into the virtual realm is testament to the universality of its themes of legacy, lineage and life’s memories and also serves a topical reminder of the inter-generational legacy of past traumas.