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

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Two-tale treat

The Winter’s Tale (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Roma Street Parklands, Amphitheatre

August 24 – September 9

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Winter may not really have made it to Brisbane this year, but its tale is being told at Roma Street Parklands in 2017’s Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s production of one of the Bard’s later and most problematic works, grown out of the anthology of his preceding plays.

Rather than offering a seasonal suggestion, however, the title, “The Winter’s Tale” insinuates a fairy tale of the old wives’ sort. And while it is grouped among Shakespeare’s comedies, its second act happy ending comes after a first act of psychological drama as a family is torn apart when a beloved King turns into a jealous monster, setting in motion a series of events that forever changes the lives of everyone he loves. The result is a tragi-comedy about forgiveness in which redemption is available to all and everyone gets to live.

By Shakespeare standards, it is a relatively simple story. Leontes, King of Sicily (Rob Pensalfini) is consumed by jealousy that Queen Hermione (Paige Poulier) is pregnant by his friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia (an under-used Silvan Rus). Protestations of their innocence only deepen his conviction and Leontes orders the faithful Camillo (Liliana Macarone) to kill Polixenes. Instead, Camillo and Polixenes escape to Bohemia as Leontes banishes Hermione to a dungeon where she gives birth to a daughter, Perdita who is taken away and abandoned to die. Leonates later repents and Perdita (Meghan Bowden) returns, having been saved and raised by a passing shepherd.

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Presented by the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble, the show is full of Shakespearen traditions. There’s audience acknowledgement, bawdy bits and the arrival of a ‘letter’ to save the day, even if in this instance the Oracle’s rule to Leontes that Hermoine is innocent and her daughter is his, goes ignored. Costumes are intricate and interesting in their detail and lighting adds layers to the already-unique parkland open-air aesthetic. With the audience seated around the action on the park’s amphitheatre’s stage, there is opportunity to make use of the area’s banked seating as an additional performance space and action sometimes spills from the stage. This works well, even if the accompanying sound effects sometimes distract more than enhance, in competition with modest voice projections. There is certainly a lot happening throughout the production, including pre-show and at interval where the multi-talented cast perform live music.

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One of the most wonderful things about seeing a Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble show, is hearing familiar Shakespearean phrases brought to life by a uniformly-excellent cast. “The Winter’s Tale” offers no exception; words are enunciated clearly and verse is delivered beautifully. Pensalfini is strong as the obstinate King Leontes, though his latter repentance is somewhat too subtle. And Paige Poulier is excellent as Hermoine, delivering a memorable, dignified appeal to Leontes’ conscience and plea for mercy. Her passionate delivery is maturely muted with a rationality and integrity that contrasts Leontes’ irrational jealousy and sets Hermoine apart from more meek Shakespearean heroines of the Desdemona sort.

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Despite only being present for brief scenes in the play, Rebecca Murphy also adds interest through her compelling depiction as the noblewoman Paulina. Unrelenting in her condemnation, she is the only one who can talk back to the King, and she does, fiercely defending the ‘sweet’st, dear’st creature’ Hermione’s virtue in call-out of his ‘gross and foolish’ decisions. In this moving scene, which sees Paulina bringing the baby Perdita to Leontes and pleading with him to look at the child and realise it is indeed his daughter, her Paulina is strong and determined, revealing no weaknesses that might undermine her arguments against injustice. And at the other extreme, Chris Vaag is as comically charming as ever, this time as the roguish wandering minstrel-pickpocket vagabond Autolycus.

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While the skilled cast carry the play along and produce some fine moments, it is a long night and, at times, it feels like it, especially after the switch between the story’s disparate halves. It is frustrating too that the script calls for things to happen offstage to be descripted by someone onstage, beyond its famous ‘exit pursued by a bear’ stage direction preceeding the offstage death of Antigonu.

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Previous productions show that QSE are at their best in presentation of the tradition of Shakespearean comedy and although its themes are more pastoral, “The Winter’s Tale” is illustration of this above all else. Whether courtesy of physicality, exaggeration or passive aggressive insults, its latter half crams in as much comedy as possible, which in some way counteracts the dissatisfaction of its all-is-forgiven ending.  Certainly, “The Winter’s Tale” has much to offer audiences, including opportunity to add a seldom-performed play to their Shakespearean repertoire. And that makes it a treat worth seeing… even if it is sans bear.

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

Contemporary connections

Swallow (E.G. & Metro Arts)

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

May 25 – June 3

In story, “Swallow” is about when strangers cross paths. Thematically, however, the work gives audiences so much more to contemplate. And the result is a challenging but rewarding experience thanks to the excellent execution by all involved in the production.

Hermitted in her home, Anna (Elise Greig) is in need to focus, frenetically completing self-decided projects in search for peace, yet yearning to travel to places she will never go. For her, going crazy is busy business, especially when you’ve been shut up inside for a couple of years and who said smashing things up was a bad thing anyway? In an apartment somewhere below her, Rebecca (Julie Cotterell) is recovering, both physically and emotionally, from a nasty breakup with an arsehole ex, comfortable in her pain. Then there is Sam (Helen O’Leary), who has found identity but not acceptance. While each is struggling, having been smashed up by life, in discovery of each other, they just might be able to save one another.

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The journeys of each of the three characters are fragmented, but as an audience we still engage with them, because of, rather than despite their flaws. This is thanks to the outstanding performances of all three cast members; their performances are so riveting to watch that we become invested in their stories even from the play’s enigmatic start.

Staging is sparse but detailed with jumbles of broken materials around each character’s initial space. Things are not static, however, with each character constantly moving, even when not directly involved in a scene. Lighting design builds from darkness in support of this, using shadows to create interesting shapes, which works with the appropriately evocative soundscape to create a memorable aesthetic. Everything is beautifully deliberate as character stories slowly intersect. Poetic monologues parallel and intersect through common and revisited metaphors and motifs of isolation and fragmentation of items and understandings alike, established in initial scenes before narrative interconnection is appreciated.

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Stef Smith’s writing is dense but also lyrical in is creativity and Kate Shearer’s directorial decisions are so detailed as to desire a further viewing to appreciate all of the nuances of choice, like to have fragile feathers falling as snow in reference to earlier dialogue mentions. Indeed, “Swallow” takes audiences to unexpected and unique places in its share of relevant messages around the importance of real relationships and the quality contemporary connectivity that lies elusively behind closed doors and smartphone screens.

In its clever storytelling and reminder to the person reflected in our mirrors to blink and breathe, “Swallow” provides a wonderful message for audiences to take away. Its holistic approach to storytelling and all-round excellent execution, make it a modern tale that everyone should see as reminder that theatre, like people, is not homogeneous, and is all the better for it.

Photos – c/o Nick Morrissey

Something very wicked this way comes

Macbeth (The Danger Ensemble)

Queensland Academy for Creative Industries

February 9 – 25

When The Danger Ensemble is involved with a presentation of Shakespeare’s Scottish play, you know it is not going to be “Macbeth” as you know it. And given its feature of a sexy Mrs M, “Weekend at Bernie’s” type moment and even a Farnham number in support of its focus on ambition and ‘be your best self’ tagline, their current production certainly proves this to be true.

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This is “Macbeth” at its most hyper-real, featuring many intriguing changes to the original text, including emphasis on the larger-than-life passion between the power-addicted, murderous main couple (Chris Beckey and Elle Mickel) through not just their passionate reunion kiss but their laden physical interactions during conversation.

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Gender-blind casting sees a blithe Princess Malcolm (Cienda McNamara) as heir to the throne of King Duncan, in mercurial juxtaposition to the usually solely dark and dangerous dramatisation of the rise and fall of Macbeth’s ambition for power and consequential slaying of all who are an obstacle in his path to kingship. Yet, seasoned Shakespearean performer Sally McKenzie is sincere and powerful in performance as Macbeth’s foil, the pivotal avenging Thane of Fife, Macduff.

Similarly, in her first major production role, Mickel is strong in her approach to characterisation of the aspirationally-manipulative Lady Macbeth, bringing a fresh complexity to a role usually considered to be of an older woman by presenting her less of a crazed harpy and more of a woman grieving the recent loss on a baby. With Beckey as a solid and compelling titular protagonist, the couple’s central relationship becomes a gripping one that really works well on stage.

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This, however, is a show that is all about its aesthetic, precise in its every detail, down to the glowing green of a cigarette ember. Even the violent visuals are gorgeous and although there is no hand-to-hand combat in Act Five’s culminating confrontation between Macduff and Macbeth, there are interesting ways of representing the battle in its place.

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The QACI theatre’s expansive stage allows for some immense scenes and Act Three’s royal banquet presents a particularly memorable visual image of the Da Vinci ‘Last Supper’ sort. Striking too are early scenes that feature Jack Hutchinson as King Duncan, side of stage, dressed all in white, with Elizabethan ruff, strategising over a table of war figurines while drinking milk as white as the blood which many characters will later be shedding.

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Lasers also add to the Ben Hughes’ lush green lighting and silhouetted images, making the weird sisters’ prophecies unlike any version before seen. The soundscape emphasises the elemental forces that grip Macbeth, resounding the repetition of the hags’ chants, and amplifying the addition of the rarely-seen Witch Queen, Hecate.

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Co-designer Arnavaz Lindsay’s costumes are sumptuous in their rich detail and contrast from imposing ‘winter is coming’ coat to plastic wrapped performers. And music enlivens the narrative with a pumping, at-times familiar soundtrack.

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If the quality of a Shakespeare performance depends on the originality of the production and its new revelations regarding themes and characters, then The Danger Ensemble’s take on “Macbeth” is a work of excellence. Director and Designer Steven Mitchell Wright has created a smouldering celebration of the company’s tenth anniversary with a beautiful, powerful and very wicked production that proves the ongoing resonance of the Bard’s themes in relation to ambition and the corruptible nature of absolute power.

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Photos c/o – Morgan Roberts

Abridged ambitions

Macbeth (shake & stir theatre company)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

January 13 – 14

Shakespeare’s most famous political tragedy, aka The Scottish Play dramatises the rise and fall of Macbeth’s ambition for power, with urging from his wife and the consequential slaying of all who are an obstacle in his path to kingship. It is one of the darkest and most complex of the Bard’s journeys with some of his most infamous characters.

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To select it for the 2017 Queensland Shakespeare Production is certainly ambitious, given that the cast (of 2016 Queensland Youth Shakespeare Festival competitors) and creatives had only six days to rehearse, block, choreograph, design and tech the work. But from the moment the show begins with Kuda Mapeza’s melodic caution that ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’, it is clear that the imaginative multi-arts exploration of the text is going to be an engaging one.

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This is an abridged version of the epic tragedy, cut down to just 75 minutes, yet still featuring all the key scenes and lines. Yet scene changes are almost imperceptible in their flow of actors, who enter from all parts of the performance space (even underneath its raised catwalks), never breaking the rhythm of the play.

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The physical theatre of its ensemble work is impressive, sitting well with its snippets of song and dance. Still, the production remains true to the violence of the savage drama and its fight scenes (choreographed by Johnny Balbuziente) are all impressive in creation of the illusion of physical combat. And there is even appearance of Shakespeare’s trademark witty innuendo in the porter scene, with Mitchell De Zwart not overplaying the bawdiness of the drunken gate-keeper’s exaggerated complaints and bawdy observations.

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Under the direction of Nelle Lee (along with Alexander Butt and Amy Ingram), Shakespeare’s language sits well in the mouths of cast members, evident particularly in the witches’ combined foreshadowing chants. Mathew Bengston gives a solid performance in the monumental role of the Scottish warrior poised at the point of possibility, however, as the plot progresses his monologues appear as a distracting hybrid of accents.

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As the ruthless Lady Macbeth, Evelina Singh is excellent. Indeed, her ‘milk of human kindness’ speech is a show highlight as she at-once conveys anger, confusion and despair along with her articulated ambivalence of gendered activity. Although the couple’s central relationship is not particularly gripping, however, this is perhaps a fault of the abridgement.

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The production’s aesthetics are impressive. A moody soundscape (from designer JP Vizcay Wilson) supports the shaping of Macbeth’s ambition in terms of the supernatural and the superstitious. And costumes offer interesting symbolism with players appearing in dark colours of contrast to the ensemble of witches, all dressed in white. While not the demotic secret black and midnight hags of Shakespeare’s imagining, the dishevelled coven convey an elemental force that is visually arresting in its grip of Macbeth as they intertwine about the stage.

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In the creative hands of a company with reputation for excellence in re-imagining the canon, like the previous Queensland Shakespeare Festival productions, “Macbeth” succeeds in bringing the Bard alive for contemporary audiences. It not only highlights the universality and ongoing relevance of Shakespeare’s themes but shows how, even in his darkest plays, there is still room for productions to make their own mark.

Photos c/o – Joel Devereux

Bell’s brutal best

Othello (Bell Shakespeare)

The Arts Centre Gold Coast

October 11

There are few companies in Australia that bring us the Bard as well as Bell Shakespeare, proven in not only fidelity to text but their highlight of the works’ ongoing thematic relevance. And, accordingly, the company’s “Othello” is a compelling production sure to affect audience members to their core in reflection of its examination of the complex contradictory nature of humanity.

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The brutal story is of Othello (Ray Chon Nee), stranger to the world of Renaissance Venice who, despite his Moorish origins, stoically commands career success and marriage to a woman half his age before being betrayed by his ensign Iago (Yalin Ozucelik) to be used as pawn in manipulation to murder his own wife Desdemona (Elizabeth Nabben) in response to a fictitious affair between her and squadron leader Cassio (Michael Wahr). In the company’s hands, the pace of the epic tragedy blisters along during Act One as Iago adds justification to (deluded) self-justification of why he is intent on enacting his plot to destroy Othello, at first claiming jealousy over recently-promoted rival Cassio’s lack of battle experience and then soliloquising as to his suspicion regarding his wife Emilia’s supposed infidelity with Othello (and Cassio).

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Lighting works well to enrich the play’s mood, starting in the shadows outside Senator Brabantio’s house as the cynical, destructive Iago uses nobleman Rodergio (Edmund Lembke-Hogan) to cause an outcry by shouting that Desdemona has deceived her father in eloping with Othello and continuing in murky green shades as the petty-minded villain progressively outlines his plan to be evened with The Moor, ‘wife for wife’. Costumes also work to convey character and theme; in contrast to the structured military dress of others, Desdemona’s clothing is softer as it floats innocently around her.

Staging is simple yet impressive in its versatility with a single rectangular table on wheels being used to provide the elevated platform of the balcony from which Brabantio calls to the duo underneath and later table upon which maps are examined in plan for General Othello’s lead of the Venetian army to war when news arrives that the Turks are soon to invade Cyprus. Yet, strangely, the handkerchief that provides Othello with the required ‘ocular proof’ that convinces him to kill Desdemona is far from the spotted with strawberries napkin expressly described in the dialogue.

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There are no weak links in the stellar cast. Elizabeth Nabeen and Joanna Downing create contrasting but complete female characters, Nabeen as the demure but more-modern and worldly than usual, Desdemona, in contrast to Iago’s wilful wife Emilia, ultimately loyal to her mistress upon disbelieving realisation that her husband has orchestrated events leading to Othello’s murder of Desdemona. Lugton is a convincing Roderigo, bringing an appealing humour to the essentially meek and easily-manipulated character and Wahr is impressively emotive as Cassio, especially in lament of the loss of his reputation upon forfeiture of his lieutenancy for succumbing to the devilish ‘invisible spirit of wine’ on duty.

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Ozucelik is an engaging Iago, everyman in his manipulations in belie of his cunning duplicity. And his ultimate lack of remorse is chilling. The play belongs, however, to its titular Moor of Venice and Chong Nee is gripping in his portrayal. In unapologetic and sincere account of how his relationship with Desdemona is respectful and mutual, his performance is quite exquisite as he massages the words of his monologue for the emotional extremities of their enunciation. And when he transfers his internal emotion upon comprehension of what he has done into plea to ‘speak of me as… one who loved not wisely but too well,’ it is one of the play’s most poignant moments, such is the dignity and vulnerability of his portrayal.

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Act Two is filled with drama thanks to the speed and aggression of Othello’s corruption to obsessive ‘green-eyed-monster’ and the resulting expose of the power play of possessiveness within the two marriages. Indeed, under the direction of Bell Shakespeare’s Artistic Director Peter Evans, the play’s violent exploration of the thin line that separates love and jealousy, provides confronting comment on the irrationality of domestic violence. And, complicit to his lies, the audible audience reactions to Iago’s chameleon behaviour when with Othello, frequent mention of the word honest as descriptor of his character and hatefully racist descriptors of the Moor, prove the resonance of the work. … as should be the case when it comes to one of Shakespeare’s best tragedies.

 Photos c/o – https://www.facebook.com/BellShakespeareCo