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.

Swiss sophistication

Switzerland (Queensland Theatre Company)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

May 20 – June 26

From the moment audiences enter QTC’s Bille Brown Studio, they are absorbed into the aesthetic of Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s “Switzerland”, an imagined interaction between American author Patricia Highsmith (creator of the famous serial killer character Tom Ripley) and a visiting rep from her publisher, shortly before her death.

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The encounter may be fictional, but the staging shows inspiration from her real house in Tegna, Switzerland, from show of her prized weapon collection to the plastic bag mysteriously hanging from the ceiling. Beneath a wall of framed cat photos, Highsmith (Andrea Moor) is hunched over, tapping away at a typewriter. She’s not a technology Luddite, but rather one with a inherit dislike of modern life in general. In fact, as is soon apparent, she doesn’t like much at all, including the visiting Edward Ridgeway (and it is personal).

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Ridgeway (Mathew Backer) has been sent from New York to where Highsmith lives in reclusive self-exile in the Swiss Alps, caught in her own tragedy of past-trauma torment. Knowing of her illness, her US publisher wants him to persuade her to write another, final psychologically-thrilling Ripey story. But getting her to sign the contract is no easy task. Although fiercely articulate in her own acumen, Highsmith is dismissive of intellectualism and belittlement is her default position as she attempts to bully him away. This gives the play an early orientation against which to anchor its cat-and-mouse game-play as the protagonists take audiences along a tense 80 minute ride, including an intriguing final twist that see Ridgeway reappearing as Ripley, the concrete rather than abstract chameleon character.

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Especially in their initial, biting banter, the two characters smash out line after line of quotable comments and insightful observations. There is eloquence, too, particularly in Ridgeway’s discussion of the writing process and Highsmith’s creation of a character with who she shares such intimacy (as allusion to his later appearance) and discussion of the role of tragedy in a character’s tapestry.

The shrewd, witty writing is realised by riveting performances from both Moor and Backer as their equally complicated characters. Moor is perfectly blunt as the legendary grump, sharp-tongued and unapologetic in her provocative opinions and intrusive questioning of Ridgeway’s background, yet also, later, insecure in her essential aloneness and acceptable of preference to ‘be a somebody somewhere you hate than a nobody somewhere you belong’. And Backer’s realisation of Ridgeway’s journey from nervous fan to more assertive contributor is measured enough be beguiling in its transformation. This is a performance that is fascinating to watch, filled as it is with subtleties; with even just the tilt of his head, for example, he tells so much of his character’s changing confidence.

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Although “Switzerland” is a swift, sharp and sophisticated work, under the direction of Paige Rattray, it is also, simultaneously, a slow burn of a theatre experience. It is more tightly charged than its opening humour might imply and is filled with clues as to its gripping narrative and challenging conclusion. Its naturalistic set of muted beiges as backdrop to its thrilling story, is amongst the Bille Brown Studio’s best. And its engrossing twists will have you reflecting and sharing in conversation long after you leave the theatre.

Photos c/o – Rob Maccoll

Striking a Quartet chord

Quartet (Queensland Theatre Company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

January 30 – February 23

When, having fallen on hard times, retired opera singers Reggie, Cecily and Wilfred, find themselves living in a retirement home, they endure repetitious days highlighted by mealtimes and anticipation of the upcoming annual concert to mark composer Verdi’s birthday. When celebrated soprano and Reggie’s ex-wife Jean arrives, having lost everything, the serenity is shattered as the now-foursome struggle to put aside grudges and re-team for one more show-stopping finale.

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With the aide of some impressive costumes, performers easily establish their distinct sense of selves, with varying degrees of acceptance of their gradual physical and mental decline. Free-spirited and excitable Cecily (Christine Amor) likes to sit happily listening to music on her headphones, however, is easily confused and scatty in her memory. Now that he’s older, Wilfred (Trevor Stuart) is obsessed with sex, delighting in dirty talk to the innocent Cecily. His extensive list of all things bad about ageing (from prostate problems to piles) provides much of the play’s humour and Stuart plays him to saucy perfection.

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Andrew McFarlane, meanwhile, is ever the gentlemen, aside from when ranting about his want of marmalade for breakfast or passively-aggressively responding to the arrival of his ex-wife Jean (Kate Wilson), a stylish but sharp-tongued and tactless woman. And director Andrea Moor achieves a fine balance in not allowing any one of them to dominate the story.

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In addition to its humour, the play is filled with charmingly sensitive moments. Indeed, its key message and positive stance on ageing and the need to value rather than wish away each day is one to be cherished, as the characters don’t regret so much as lament about life rushing you into old age, despite the youthful feelings within. It also serves as a celebration of the artistry of artists and offers opportunity for four talented and experienced older actors to show their stuff on the stunning stage. And it is entirely appropriate that the production is dedicated to QTC family member Carol Burns and the legacy that her passing leaves within Queensland’s theatrical community.

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At one point within the work, after some deliberation, Reginald, decides that “art is meaningless if it doesn’t make you feel.” Ronald Harwood’s “Quartet” is a poignant play that will make you feel: humour, happiness, sadness and hope. Its tender take on the frustrations and fears of growing old is emotionally satisfying and ultimately uplifting, making it likely to strike a chord with many audience members, both during its Brisbane season and when it tours regionally.

Copros, classics and close-to-home tales

The Queensland Theatre Company has announced its 2016 season, the last programmed by outgoing Artistic Director Wesley Enoch who is departing the company to take up the role of Sydney Festival Director for the 2017 – 2019 Festivals. As Enoch noted at the season launch, “we make theatre because we like to tell stories.” And what a bunch of stories he has left as the final component of his legacy… diverse stories of ambition, achievement and bravery.

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The highlight, coming early in the year is “The Secret River” adaptation of Kate Grenville’s multi-award-winning bestselling novel that tells of the bloody beginnings of colonial Australia, when pardoned convicts clashed with the traditional owners of the land they settled along the banks of the Hawkesbury River. Coming off the back of this year’s lavish ABC miniseries and previous Sydney season, the Sydney Theatre Company co-production is sure to be a powerful, epic (featuring 22 actors on stage) experience of a work that will surely settle into the Australian theatrical cannon.

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The provocative themes will continue in October’s “Disgraced” a co-production with the Melbourne Theatre Company of Ayad Akhtar’s debut 2012 play and winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The stirring drama promises to challenge notions of Islamophobia and terrorism through its intimate, intellectual Manhattan dinner party setting, (like “God of Carnage” with politics and sans the catalyst children perhaps).

disgracedSimilarly small in scale, will be “Switzerland”, in which Andrea Moor presents a thrilling re-imagining of the last days of crime novelist Patrica Highsmith (author of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and other twisted tales).

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At the other end of the serious scale is the bright and bold “Bastard Territory”, a co-production with Perth’s Black Swan Theatre Company about the 1960s and ‘70s bohemian lifestyle of far northern Australia and the Pacific Islands residents. With soundtrack boasting Shirley Bassey and Suzi Q, it promises to be quite the weird and wonderful ride when it features at the Bille Brown Studio as a Season 2016 Add On.

A comedy of the more classic kind will be Moliere’s “Tartuffe” (starring Darren Gilshenan who was last year seen in “Mother and Son”), a co-production with Western Australia’s Black Swan Theatre Company. The story of the titular brazen conman may have first been performed in the 17th century but promises to be sinfully brilliant and perhaps surprisingly still relevant in its attack on religious hypocrisy and fanaticism.

The season opener at The Playhouse, “Quartet”, Directed by Andrea Moor, also promises to be devilishly funny as it journeys into old age with four feisty ageing opera singers who, having fallen upon hard times, find themselves trying to come to terms with life in a retirement home by headlining a convert to mark composer Verdi’s birthday.

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Fun too, will be the bantering, bickering Beatrice and Benedick, when Director Jason Karwein brings to life the classic romantic sparring of “Much Ado About Nothing”, one of the Bard’s most accessible and enjoyable comic works, when Shakespeare was ‘on his zing’, we are told at the launch. And as the prototypical but also terribly modern rom-com couple: squabbling like children until they realise they’re actually in love and fall into each other’s arms, Hugh Parker and Christen O’Leary promise to make love quite the battlefield. The addition of Ellen Bailey and Tama Maheson in paring as the more traditional Hero/Claudio couple is only added bonus, coming as they both are from some outstanding 2015 Brisbane Powerhouse performances.

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Indeed, it is wonderful to see so much local talent featuring within the season. And also that it will once again feature shows true to the Brisbane experience, whether it be from across the world or around the corner. Brisbane playwright, David Burton’s new work, “St Mary’s in Exile”, to be directed by Jason Klarwein, is one of those stories that would be beyond belief if it wasn’t true, telling the tale of how, in 2009, Brisbane’s Catholic community was rocked when the Catholic Church stepped in to oust beloved priest Father Peter Kennedy from his post at St Mary’s in South Brisbane.

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Motherland” is back too, moving from Metro Arts to QTC’s Bille Brown Studio, for a return season in April. This historical drama by local playwright Katherine Lyall-Watson was a 2014 highlight, telling with delicious language a trio of somewhat true stories: of Brisbane-born Nell who has travelled the world before marrying the Russian Prime Minister and helping him flee the Nazis in World War II, writer and academic Nina who quits her native Russia for Paris, only to return in her twilight years, and single mother Alyona, a Russian museum curator whisked away to Brisbane by an Australian businessman, in search of a brighter future. Both epic and intimate in its sweeping tales of different women from different times, united in the heartache of exile from their homelands, it will take audiences from the chaos of a Russian military coup, through the hell of Nazi-occupied France to a turbulent Brisbane in the throes of the Fitzgerald Inquiry.

And The Dead Puppets Society is also returning, this time for World Premiere of “The Wider Earth”, featuring local talents including Thomas Larkin and Margi Brown Ash, as well as a bevy of astonishing puppets breathing life into creatures great and small. It promises to be an extravagantly beautiful recount of the tale of scientific visionary Charles Darwin’s voyage on the HMS Beagle in The Wider Earth.

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With its mix of classic and contemporary works, whimsical trips to the happiest of theatrical places and contemplation of differing opinions, the 2016 season promises to be all sorts of engagement. 3, 5 and 8 Play Packages are available now. Though if you are feeling adventurous, you could always all in to purchase the ultimate 10 Play Package!

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Full throttle theatre

Grounded (Queensland Theatre Company)

The Greenhouse, Diane Cilento Studio

July 29 – August 22

A good play’s virtues are so simple and obvious; they essential revolve around the notion of story. And the story of “Grounded” is a timely and absorbing one. The protagonist is a nameless female US fighter pilot (Libby Munro). When her years of flying, adrenalised by the full throttle allure of ‘the blue’, are thwarted by the pink line of a pregnancy test, she is grounded in the nightmare of the ‘chair force’ of Reaper drone pilot monotony, remotely controlling an $11 million eye-in-the-sky robot that can destroy convoys in seconds, from a trailer in Las Vegas in front of a screen of shades of grey.

Clearly, this is not a career turn to her liking; the show begins with her lying on stage, her suit shed and on the ground alongside, reflecting on how she never wanted to take it off. And when she then puts it on it remains so, in some way, for the duration, as emphasis of how much it is a part of her identity. In what is essentially a 75 minute monologue, Monro’s performance is unrelenting in its energy as she controls the ebbs and flows of the narrative, vocally through use of pace and pause but also visually through body language and the smallest of nuances of facial expression.

A one-person show is certainly demanding and Munro’s absorption of her character is complete and utterly authentic. The natural conversational style of her commentary about the gaudiness of the Las Vegas strip, when she and her husband and baby girl move to Nevada for her new posting, reveal a humour in their abrasive honesty, while her frustration with the repetitious tedium associated with 12 hour shifts of piloting unmanned drone flights borders on an anger that the audience is made to appreciate through some (perhaps excessive) emphasis. Clearly, this is a fierce, confident woman, brash in her blokiness and evidently more comfortable, when not high in the sky, sharing a post-shift beer with the boys rather than returning to day-to-day domestic routine without opportunity to decompress and share the classified nature of her day’s doings.

This is a well-written piece of theatre from George Brant, full of poetic notions to its rhythm and pacing, and a real craftedness to its imagery not initially appreciated but later recognised in revelation of its emerging larger themes. And with newly-appointed QTC Artistic Associate Andrea Moor as Director, it is certainly in safe hands. Moor clearly knows how to direct stories of strong women, as audiences have previously seen in her work with Monro in QTC’s “Venus in Fur”. And the fact that the team are bringing the show to the Diva’s series is absolutely appropriate, given its focus on celebrating women of outstanding talent.
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The set is exceeding simple, making good use of The Greenhouse’s more intimate Diane Cilento Studio space with an enigmatic backdrop design pattern to prompt audience members into ‘is it showing the sky or a camouflage pattern?’ debate of the blue/gold dress type. And while lighting effectively marks mood changes when The Pilot’s recount realms into recalled conversations, it is Tony Brumpton’s soundscape that the most memorable design element as it uses the beat of a heart to accentuate the suspenseful moments that represent the reality of battle in modern warfare and the complex personal experiences the result from this.

“Grounded” is an intense theatrical experience of sustained suspense that quite literally ends with a bang. Its insight into the experience of a grounded pilot, representation of ethical dilemmas and illustration of the nature of post-traumatic stress disorder as the sands of America and Afghanistan start to blur, are compelling. However, ultimately it is testament to Monro’s incredible talent that that they are able to hold the audience’s attention for the entirety of the piece. In combination, they make for a wonderful celebration of the work of female artists and it is of little surprise to discover on opening night that the show’s season, QTC’s tenth for the year so far, has already been extended for a week.