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.

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.

Musical mettle

Mettle, Moxie & Melody (Etch Events)

Cudo

May 15 – 19

Presenting a new musical as part of the annual Anywhere Festival is always going to be brace undertaking, especially in the case of a work like “Mettle, Moxie & Melody”, which from its start is pretty much sung straight through in full musical style for its first 20 minutes or so. Although the varying vocal skill of its performers means that some songs are in competition with the backing soundtrack, this initial section does serve to showcase the work’s potential as much as Merilee E’s standout vocals.

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Merilee E is Stella, an overqualified, underemployed phone sales worker who loves to write music. Along with young mother Renae (Courtney Farrar), realising that she can’t rely on her video-game addicted husband and Evie (a dramatically-strong Xoe Lee-Archer), whose budding romance results in family tension, she represents a modern day damsel-in-distress.

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Through the show’s opening song, ‘Something More’ we are introduced to each of them, before hearing more of their situations in turn. Fearless Evie is hoping for a ‘New Beginning’, determined that there is something more waiting for her, away from having to reveal her sexuality to her conservative mother. Renae is dealing with a sick baby as well as a distant husband. And Stella is living a half-life of KPIs and competencies in work towards realising the dream of a house on the hill with her husband. There are more complications to follow from their initially-established conflicts, but not until the outset of Act Two, rather than as enticement into interval. However, essentially this show is just their stories, exaggerated as the true experiences are, presented with the help of supporting characters from Clarise Ooi, Taylor Jean Day, Juanita Van Wyk, Anina-Marie Warrrener and Lawson Schafer in double husband duty.

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The music and lyrics (and also book), by local Brisbane composer Anina-Marie Warrener, feature a range of styles, from the moving ‘Lullaby’, beautifully delivered by Courtney Farrar to a random song and dance number, ‘Sales Zest’ about Stella’s need to suck up the humdrumness of day-to-day work and show some sales fizz. However, songs often stall around repeat of just one emotional idea, rather than progressing things along narratively, which, cumulatively, feels somewhat repetitive.

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“Mettle, Moxie & Melody” advertises itself as being about three strong young women discovering their inner dragons in a musical traversing marriage, sexuality and careers, and its clear female empowerment message is certainly appealing both in premise and realisation, even if we have to wait until the final number, ‘Once Upon a Time’ for revelation of the meaning of its cumbersome title.

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One of the great things about the Anywhere Festival is discovery of different venue locations around the city’s nooks and crannies. For shows like “Mettle, Moxie & Melody” there is also the benefit of its excellent value for money for a show of substantial length. It’s just unfortunate that its over advertised time run meant that on Thursday, at least, the last three scenes and songs were delivered in competition with the on-time show occurring in the next-door theatre space.

 Photos – c/o Gemma Lancaster

Playing with premise

Playing Pretend (The Big Crew)

Woolloongabba Substation

May 10 – 12

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“A group of young, hungry artists, bare it all in this hilarious, tell-all expose on the trials and triumphs of life as a struggling artist in the Brisbane Indie Theatre scene.” This is how “Playing Pretend” is blurbed in the Anywhere Festival program. And when it sticks to this as a narrative premise The Big Crew production works very well as Veda, Korey, Trent and James consider the cost and value of a university arts degree and the reality of networking and auditioning for roles. Less successful to its overall cohesion are scenes that stray from this, such as a sensational reflection of the burdensome experience of everyday life and work, and undergraduate overthinking of everything.

The foursome are young, newly-trained, ambitious actors for which fate has other plans. Caught in an after-graduation creative vacuum, they find themselves forced to reconsider everything they thought they knew about themselves, with one big question looming large– Where do they go from here? In exploration of this, there is discussion of the questions, judgements and stereotypes that are associated with a life in the arts and therein lies the show’s truth.

Featuring (mostly) true stories, “Playing Pretend” is an ultimately heartfelt take on the highs and lows of life as a young artist, however, this honesty takes a while to emerge, and doesn’t appear to be fully realised until its stay-with-you, emotional ending. Regardless of its promised premise, this is a play about being yourself and the spirit of youthful purpose. Its setting is appropriately minimal, allowing for focus on the real-life stories on show… chairs on stage affront a row of requisite (empty) wine bottles which the characters later drink, however, a changing light show as backdrop to initial character introductions is not only unnecessary, but serves as a distraction for the dialogue being delivered.

A show about being an artist in Brisbane is an interesting premise. “Playing Pretend” is, however, more about artist experiences in general and it could perhaps benefit from some specificity to enhance its uniqueness and add to audience appeal. Still, despite its slips, there is something here worth exploring, even for those not in the arts. Indeed, if you have ever overpaid for an unnecessary university textbook, misquoted some Shakespeare or believed yourself to be suffering an early-life existential crisis, there is perhaps something in “Playing Pretend” for you.

Fauna funniness

Naturally Confused (Maybe Mad Theatre Co)

Cudo

May 9 – 26

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It is perhaps rare in the arts to have a show premise with anything even resembling a unique concept, yet amongst all of its silliness, the basis of Maybe Mad Theatre Co’s “Naturally Confused” offers exactly this as animal expert host Boris (George Harris) desperately attempts to unload his infinite knowledge of flora, and more significantly fauna, on his audience and fans, only sans animals!! Cue the chaos promised by the Anywhere Festival show’s blurb and its wackiness which comes largely from assistant Blain’s (Bridget Ward) faux pars and tomfoolery.

The show stays true to its title too; there is much deliberate confusion in the initial frenzied dialogue between the presenters, full of malapropisms and repetition that does drag a little. Anywhere Festival shows, by means of the festival’s premise of presenting performances anywhere but a theatre, typically have minimal staging, so must rely heavily on their performances. Thankfully, in this regard, “Naturally Confused” is immediately engaging. Ward, in particular, is a very funny performer, making for a hysterical walrus, tusks and all (amongst other animals). She can make even standing alone on stage doing nothing hilarious, thanks to just the slightest of sidelooks and most well-timed of pauses.

The show paces along nicely as the duo banter between themselves while presenting different animals and their associated facts to the audience, however, the momentum slams into a seemingly abrupt ending. Still, this is an Anywhere Festival show that is well worth a look. It’s light-hearted and funny from start to finish in that madcap kind of way. There is song and dance, and even a ukulele number… plus some random facts about nature… like a David Attenborough documentary, but not really.