The delight and unite of theatre

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Theatre-going may beget theatre-going, but the end of year does provide welcome respite to relax and reflect upon the bevy of brilliant shows that Brisbane audiences have be privileged to experience in 2016. As for me, from 150 shows seen, there have been many favourites, including:

  1. The Tragedy of King Richard III (La Boite Theatre Company) – The fast and furious story of rampant revenge that we thought we knew is an evocation of the play, the man and ourselves thanks to the hard questions asked by Daniel Evans and Marcel Dorney.
  1. Disgraced (Queensland Theatre presenting a Melbourne Theatre Company Production) – Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning intense and absorbing drama which fearlessly puts contemporary attitudes towards politics, race and religion under the microscope in exploration of freedom of speech, political correctness and the prejudices towards Islam, even in the most progressive cultural circles.
  1. True West (Brisbane Powerhouse, Troy Armstrong Management, Thomas Larkin and Annette Box) – Sam Shepperd’s modern classic which sees two desert-dwelling brothers go head-to-head, kicking and thrusting towards physical and psychological showdown in desperate pursuit of the American Dream.
  1. The Secret River (Queensland Theatre presenting a Sydney Theatre Company production) – Kate Grenville’s story of two families divided by culture and land on the banks of the frontier Hawkesbury River in the early nineteenth century.
  1. Bastard Territory (Queensland Theatre) – A complex, beautiful story about people that transports audiences back in time to the swinging ‘60s PNG and the bohemian days of 1975 NT, before settling in 2001, as Darwin sits poised for political progress.
  • Best performance – Thomas Larkin as Lee in True West (Brisbane Powerhouse), Ngoc Phan in as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire (La Boite)
  • Best staging – Madama Butterfly (Opera Q)
  • Best lighting – Snow White (La Boite, Brisbane Festival)
  • Best AV – The Wider Earth (Queensland Theatre)
  • Most interesting – Disgraced (Queensland Theatre, QPAC)
  • Best New Work – The Tragedy of King Richard III (La Boite)
  • Best Shakespeare – Twelfth Night (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)
  • Best musical – The Sound of Music (Andrew Lloyd Webber, David Ian, John Frost and The Really Useful Group)
  • Best cabaret – California Crooners Club (Parker + Mr French, Brisbane Festival)
  • Best dance – Huang Up & Kuka (Brisbane Powerhouse, WTF)
  • Funniest – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Lyric Hammersmith and Filter Theatre – UK, Brisbane Festival)
  • Most fun – Titanic The Movie The Play (Act/React, Brisbane Comedy Festival)
  • Most moving – The Secret River (Queensland Theatre)

Although many of my personal highlights have been international acts, often featuring as part of festivals, these cultural feasts have also delivered some excellent locally-themed theatre amid the internationalisation on offer. It is the delight of theatre that events such as these can not only inspire creativity, but also unity in cultural participation. Hopefully 2017 will see more people realising theatre’s accessibility, because it is not about a specialist language or privileged perspective but rather just people telling a story or sharing a way of looking at the world… things that are at the core of our essential humanity.

Midsummer mayhem

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

(Lyric Hammersmith and Filter Theatre)

QPAC, The Playhouse

September 9 – 17

It is a rare thing to be an hour into a show and still have no idea at all where it is going to go. And in the case of Filter Theatre’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, this is a very good thing, given the absurdity with which the group has taken what is arguably Shakespeare’s most popular comedy and transformed it into a giddy and gleeful postmodern romp.

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That said, it does start a little slowly with, like so many Shakespearean works, a prologue, delivered with true Irish charm, but of frantic pace by Peter Quince (Ed Gaughan). Drifting into tangents about the Royal family, for example, he tells audience members that they are about to enter the Ancient Athens of ‘fantastic architecture and thriving homosexual culture’. He promises that the part of Bottom is meant to be played by a famous actor, but a technical hitch means that an ‘audience volunteer’ may have assume the role. It is all in keeping with the clumsy craft of the play’s Mechanicals’ amateur dramatics, and, as the curtain rises on the Athenian court, Shakespeare’s society is represented in the play by three distinct class groups, lovers, mechanicals and fairies. A series of mix-ups orchestrated by king of the fairies Oberon (Harry Jardine) causes lovers’ quarrels between Lysander and Hermia, Demetrius and Helena, frantic chases and general chaos that needs to be resolved before King Theseus’s fast approaching wedding.

What the audience sees, however, is no ethereal forest setting with set design placing the action within a run-down public bathroom of white tiles, water leaks and paper-walls through which characters literally burst on to the stage. Staging is chaotically creative as pieces are destroyed and as Puck (Ferdy Roberts) flings blue liquid gel love juice around, to instant aphrodisiac effect. Oberon, dressed as superhero in all-in-one suit and cape, flies, falls and is covered in flour as part of an epic food fight (with audience involvement). Rather than unruliness, this makes for a hilarious experience that flies by without realisation of its near two hour duration. It’s not all froth and frivolous bubble, however, for as contrast to the mania of the Mechanicals, the lovers, speak only Shakespeare’s words.

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This is a high-energy and physically-demanding show and all the performers deliver accordingly. Francesca Zoutewelle is solid as Hermia, Cat Simmons is an initially dignified Titania and John Lightbody is sensationally smooth as the lustful Lysander, once transformed entirely from his former unassuming self in reaction to the love potion. And Demetrious (Karl Queensborough) makes music out of the Bard’s iambic pentameter. Another standout is Ferdy Roberts as grumpy, tattooed and mischievous rocker roadie/stagehand Puck, from his commanding entrance to the dignified delivery of his final wishes of good night unto all. And Fergus O’Donnell makes the scripted chaos of Bottom’s ascension to stage seem spontaneously improvised. Together, they provide a refreshing interpretation of the characters

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Despite its anarchy, in many ways, this “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” keeps with Shakespeare’s original text though its weave of comedy through all three of the plot strands and, in particular through the ridiculous mirth of the working class Mechanicals and their presentation to the audience of an abbreviated “Pyramus and Thisbe”, making us laugh at them rather than with them, in a way different to many other of Shakespeare’s jesters and clowns.

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Every comic device is evident in this fast-moving funny-fest. There are moments of stand-up (showing that apparently 20 years is in fact too soon for a Michael Hutchence joke), celebrity impersonations, spontaneous songs, slapstick, clowning and innuendo. The greatest laughs come, however, from notice of the little details, like the lameness of a lion costume and Oberon and Puck’s pull up of picnic chairs and crack open of drinks to watch the lovers battle it out.

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Filter Theatre have made their reputation mainly for inventive takes on classic plays and this is especially evident in their sound innovation, and Chris Branch and Tom Haines’s sound design and original music is masterful. Music is effectively integrated into this production and the live band, doubling as Mechanicals, in break from their play of retro kitsch Barry White and The Ramones numbers, add the necessary magic to assist the audience in imagining the invisible fairies to life and suggesting Bottom’s transition to donkey by the sounds of coconut-shell hooves clapping. And a fight between Lysander and Demetrius is enacted as a video game, with Puck at the console, with the noise of gunfire and explosions.

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Although a modernisation of a Shakespearean classic is hardly a ground-breaking idea, Filter Theatre manages to bring something truly unique to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Characters and scenes are presented with new purpose, freshly realising, in particular, the text’s sexual innuendo. It’s not always cohesive, but it is superlatively funny in its gleeful irreverence. Cutting and adding so much text is filled with risk, but it is risk that exists at the foundation of all exciting art. And, in this instance, the liberties taken with the text make for not only a highly-entertaining, but a genuinely accessible version. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much in the theatre.

Forest foils and fairies

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (shake & stir theatre company)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

January 21 – 22

It is often said that the lighthearted “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is Shakespeare’s most humorous play, which makes it a fitting choice for a youth production such as that of the 2015 Qld Youth Shakes Fest finalists. The multi-arts romantic comedy, which features 35 of the state’s creative youth, follows an abridged account of the rendezvous of four young lovers and a group of actors and their interactions with forest fairies and a duke and duchess. With a story also featuring a fairy king and queen, star-crossed lovers, wood sprites and, of course, the half-donkey Bottom, it is a fantastic ensemble piece so well suited to the context.

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The young performers all show a command of the text and skill in the demanding roles. Although there is little character development in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and no true protagonist, Meg Fraser leads the group as disobedient daughter Hermia, exhibiting captivating control of a gamut of emotions. As her frienemy Helena, Sarina Bakker is, by contrast, gleefully manic in her feisty and fanatical unrequited passion for Demetrius (Bryson Morris-McGuire), with much of the production’s initial humour coming from her chase of him and his response to her mania.

Although characterisation sometimes slips in the stereotypes courtesy of its modernisation, performers all convey a passion that will hopeful develop in subtlety as their stage presence is crafted. And while the scene where couples fight over who loves who, under the spell of mischievous fairy Puck’s misplaced love potion drags a little, it is a perfect vehicle to showcase the performers’ physicality.

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Beyond just the appearance of anarchy, hilarity comes from many places, including the requisite Shakespearean play-within-a-play story of Pyramus and Thisbe that occupies much of the final act. The bumbling, melodramatic satire not only gives the play a joyful conclusion, but offers opportunity to showcase some wonderful comic timing from a meek lion finally given chance to roar and a very funny wall… not just any wall, but the kind of wall that has a little hole in it through which the lovers whisper in secret. It is the type of comedy easily able to be appreciated by Bard newbies without intimate knowledge of the show’s sometimes complicated, interconnected narratives.

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In response to Shakespeare’s vivid, poetic evocation of setting, the production, which was created in just under a week, uses a somewhat simple but impressive installation of 1.3km of perfect paper chain to add texture and depth to Cameron Goerg’s lighting design (kind of like the chain backdrop used in David Tennant’s “Richard II” at London’s Barbican Theatre).

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Accompanied by a dynamic soundscape and some melancholic moments of live music and song, this allows for smooth transition through the moods of the forest’s magic and morning dawn contrasts. And simple and inventive props are punctuated by clever little touches of detail, like foolish Bottom’s (Gerick Leota Thomsen) ‘bad ass’ cap.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has long been one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies and at the hands of director Ross Balbuziente, this production resonates in celebration of this appeal. Crafted with humour, inventiveness and flair, it is a pleasure-filled interpretation of a centuries-old work that can clearly still be accessible and exciting.

For Puck’s Sake

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

February 11 – March 7

Arguably Shakespeare’s most popular comedy, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” tells the story of four star-crossed lovers, the coming nuptials of a duke and duchess, a growing feud in the land of the fairies, and the comedic antics of a theatre troupe. Add a magical forest to the mix and you have the makings of a delightful show. But unless you are familiar with the text and eager to see a bold, dark interpretation of the play, this might not be the show for you.

Immediately, it is clear that this is far from a traditional realisation of the classic comedy. Audiences won’t be seeing a forest, for there are no trees. Rather, the detailed set gives the play a new location in a kitschy 1970s suburban home. There are no (visible) magic fairies and while there is a Puck, it is not the mischievous, quick–witted sprite of Shakespeare’s traditional text. Instead, he is reimaged as a disembodied voice Poltergeistically conveyed through a flickering television.

These are daring textual changes, from a Benjamin Schostakowski, a director who has never feared brave choices, for although there is little character development in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and no true protagonist, critics generally point to Puck as the most important character in the play. Puck’s whimsical spirit, magical fancy, fun-loving humour, and lovely, evocative language are lost in his technological reincarnation. And the forest is integral to the story, both in terms of setting and scenes, creating a dark, wild, mysterious atmosphere in which the magical elements of Shakespeare’s plot can be played out; to lose it, denies the play one of the central elements of its fantastical atmosphere.

Surely one of the ambitions of adaptation should be increased accessibility. And while emphasis and pause bring a modern sensibilty to dialogue delivery, this alone, is not enough. The plot is very important in Shakespeare’s comedies given their typical convoluted, twisted and confusing natures. However, having just six actors perform 14 roles, (complete with many a dodgy wig), using the play’s original Elizabethan dialogue, makes for an unclear start, especially to audience members unfamiliar with the play’s multiple plots.

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Many Shakespeare devices are still evident, apothecary intervention, cross dressing and a play within a play and there is much humour in the Act Five realisation of the Pyramus and Thisbe story by the crew of incompetent amateur actors. The Act Three farcical scene of Helena (Emily Burton) chiding Hermia (Kathryn Marquet), and Lysander (Kieran Law) and Demetrius (Pacharo Mzembe) ready to fight one another for Helena’s love, is full of hilarity, but its over-the-top physicality unnecessarily detracts from humour of a script that already includes puns, metaphors, and insults to provoke thoughtful laughter.

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As Helena, Burton bring her role to glorious life, in every aspect, especially through her engaging soliloquies. And Law is an enthusiastic Bottom, inhabiting the physically of his various guises with impressive commitment. Christen O’Leary (initially unrecognisable in tragic wig) is wonderful when as the nymph Titania, but is ultimately underutilised.

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Indeed, on paper, this “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has all the ingredients for success – an accomplished ensemble cast, a talented director and expert sound and lighting designers in Wil Hughes and Jason Glenwright, yet something, it seems it still missing (beyond just Puck). Freaky, funny, chaotic and confusing, this is a dream unlike any other, typical of Schostakowski’s quirky genius and delicious darkness and there are many people who will admire it accordingly. And traditionalist bias aside, this can only be seen as a good thing, for it highlights how Shakespeare’s dramatic poetry still has the power to entertain, move and enthral us in such a variety of ways.

Matildas Monday

I saw a lot of theatre in 2013, however, my 79 shows were obviously not enough, given that they did not include “1001 Nights” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, which both scooped the pool at the 2013 Matilda Awards.

The Gardens Theatre event, which was hosted by Dash Kruck and Emily Burton as their bewildering “A Tribute of Sorts” characters Ivan and Juniper, featured a who’s who of Brisbane Theatre both in the crowd and being honoured for their work. And it was wonderful to witness the mutual respect on show, when, for example, the immensely talented Barb Lowing received a standing ovation upon her receipt of the Gold Matilda Award for her performances in “The China Incident”, “Tequila Mockingbird”, and “Motherland.”

The Matildas are awards which recognise excellence in Queensland (Brisbane) Theatre. To be eligible, theatre workers have to have made, in the judges’ opinion, a commitment to the State, for example, by either beginning their careers or living and working mainly here, or by having a strong identification with Queensland.

And aside from representing the chance to honour their work, the night also provided for some wonderful entertainment, both intended and accidental.  As Ivan and Juniper, Dash and Emily were hilariously nuanced in their portrayals of Ivan and Juniper and, as one of the few Brisbanites not to have seen “A Tribute of Sorts” during its 2012 run, I am looking forward to its season this May at QTC’s Greenhouse.  Juniper, in particular, had the audience in stitches with her roving reporter audience crosses and aggressive flirtation with Special Guest Presenter James Stewart.

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The expected comic repertoire was there, with references to the Campbell Newman line cut and shake and stir’s commercial success. What was missing, however, were categories allowing for particular recognition of achievement in opera and dance, so as to better reflect the diversity of work being produced. And it is disappointing the new category of Best Technical Design includes Lighting, Multimedia and Sound, rather than these being recognised as distinct disciplines with talented designers worthy of independent acclaim for their outstanding work.

Congratulations to all the winners, who now join artists of national and international stature who featuring among past recipients.  And indeed, to all of the nominees, thought as Ivan and Juniper cheekily noted, ‘we shall discuss them no further’.

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 2013 GOLD MATILDA AWARDS

 Barbara Lowing

for performances in The China Incident, Tequila Mockingbird, and Motherland

Jason Glenwright

for lighting Rumour Has It: Sixty Minutes Inside Adele, Out Damn Snot,
Blood Brothers, Oklahoma!, Next to Normal,
and Tequila Mockingbird

Andrea Moor

for directing Venus in Fur

shake & stir theatre company

for creating Tequila Mockingbird

Christen O’Leary 

for her performance in End of the Rainbow

2013 SILVER MATILDA COMMENDATIONS

Tequila Mockingbird
Best Mainstage Production
shake & stir theatre co.

1001 Nights
Best New Australian Work
Michael Futcher and Helen Howard (adapters)

Motherland
Best Independent Production
Metro Arts & Ellen Belloo

Dan Crestani
Best Male Actor in a Leading Role
1001 Nights

Libby Munro
Best Female Actor in a Leading Role
Venus in Fur

Hayden Spencer
Best Male Actor in a Supporting Role
End of the Rainbow

Louise Brehmer
Best Female Actor in a Supporting Role
A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Michael Futcher
Best Director
1001 Nights

Angel Kosch
Best Design (Set & Costumes)
Costume Design, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Phil Slade
Best Technical Design (Lights, Multimedia & Sound)
Musical Direction, 1001 Nights

Sandra Carluccio
Bille Brown Award for Best Emerging Artist
for creating This is Capital City

Rumour Has It:
Sixty Minutes Inside Adele

Best Musical or Cabaret
Judith Wright Centre & The Little Red Company