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.

Magpie masterclass

Magpie (A Playlab, Metro Arts and E.G Production presented in partnership with Brisbane Powerhouse)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

May 29 – Jun 8

According to American novelist Flannery O’Connor, “the beginning of human knowledge is through the senses. This underpinning of human perception is at the core of playwright Elise Greig’s world premiere work “Magpie”; its all-encompassing description offers theatre-goers immersion into the experience of a Brisbane summer, where thunder storms threaten for longer than they onslaught and nothing is as cooling as a lemonade ice-block.

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This is all part of the long-ago identity of the story’s feisty central character, recently fallen from critical favour novelist Mordecai (Barb Lowing). Returning home following her father’s death, she discovers more than just the architectural monstrosities that have now taken over the Poinsettias. Her resulting memories are made more vivid by discovery of a long-forgotten brown-paper covered notebook and through this the story is drawn back to 1961 and her attempted investigation, along with neighbourhood friend Splinter (Michael Mandalios) into her parent’s apparent unhappiness.

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Through the resulting flashbacks we are served glimpses of her fractured and allegedly cursed dysfunctional family and the perpetual arguments of her Romani parents Aggy and Meshack (Kathryn Marquet and Julian Curtis) that caused the teenage Mordecai’s departure. Though its cleverly crafted script, we also discover why she was considered an outsider and nicknamed Magpie, in parallel to the city’s identity search on the cusp of becoming the Brisbane that we now know thanks to the realised promises of Clem Jones as Lord Mayor.

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David Walters’ stylish lighting design works well not only to convey the overwhelm of the city’s oppressive heat but to showcase the contrast of past and present within the same scene. While this is a Brisbane story of Australia’s multi-cultural heritage, however, it is also so much more in its expose of nostalgia and the power of going home to a place that no longer is, to which audience members can apply their own experiences.

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Lowing is a talented actor that you wouldn’t mind seeing in anything and “Magpie” represents a wonderful vehicle for her gifts. She is barely of stage for the show’s duration and presents a powerful performance, not just as the cynical and outwardly robust protagonist, and her seamless jumps between her three-times-married, almost-grandmother and teenage self are seamless. There are no weak links in this cast and together its actors present an effective masterclass in character work. Mandalios’ energy as the tell-it-as-it-is Splinter is infectious; he inhabits the character’s essence entirely, down even to his excited run faster than his body.

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Curtis presents Abby as a proud and passionate rather than just an easy-to anger man and Marquet provides a quiet balance as Mordecai’s mother, burdened with much more than we initially realise. The writing of their migrant observations in particular is quite witty, epitomised in a very funny scene in which Mordecai bring Splinter home to a family dinner, which provides a nice break to the slow-burn dramatic tension of the play’s otherwise dense thematic temperament.

Developed through Playlab’s programs, “Magpie” is a complex work with integral twists and turns to engage the audience for the entirety of its 90-minute duration. More than just a belated coming of age story, it is a moving experience with a poignancy that sneaks up on you as so often happens in reality when dealing with issues of grief. As many great works do, it has much to say about many things, including the power and generational legacy of long-dormant secrets. Indeed, the depth of its themes and craftedness of its script and will surely ensure its longevity.

Photos c/o – Stephen Henry

Roving recollections

Rovers (Belloo Creative)

Theatre Republic, The Block

September 11 – 15

One of last month’s Melbourne Writers Festival unorthodox special events, Second Last Rites, saw Australian actress, comedian and writer Magda Szubanski giving over to the one party she never thought she could attend, her own funeral.  Katherine Lyall-Watson’s “Rovers” is a little like that. It’s a wake though, not a funeral, we are reminded, so serves as celebration of a life lived… in all of its roving yet intertwined memories and experiences, the beginning, ending and everything in between. Some are real and some are creations, but in the hands of two of Brisbane’s best-loved and most accomplished actors, Roxanne McDonald and Barbara Lowing, all are quite entertaining.

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Immediately the new comedy-drama from all-female company Belloo Creative is quite meta not just in its outline of the wake theme and warning about the possibility of ‘copping an eyeful of middle-aged flesh’, but also mocked berate of Technical Manager Jeremy for turning out the lights and the ongoing appearance of the stage hand allegedly responsible for the less than perfect prop appearances. It is all very playful and lots of fun as a kaleidoscope of recollections collide, as they do in life. This is especially so in its early scene recall of the childhood memories of the Bogeyman and ‘when-I-grow-up’ ambitions, more intense now than ever with age. And the show’s minimalist set design and stirring soundtrack means that we imagine a lot, as tyres become horses and alike.

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It begins with Lowing descending from a desert water tank to meet up with McDonald and from there, the journey through their memories unfolds as the ‘two old girls’ reunite on-stage after more than 20 years. It is a trip through the heart lines of their own lives in revisit of the adventure of the women who made them who they are today, including Barbara Toy (Lowing’s namesake great Aunt) who crossed deserts and warzones in her trusty Land Rover, Pollyanna.

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It’s a journey, too that has storytelling at its core, unique due to its personal nature and weave from the tapestry of truth. And the dynamic duo present it as quite the yarn. Indeed, their warmth and genuine enjoyment in its share, emphasises the sincerity of its sentiment and rather than making it overly sentimental, its intimacy only adds to its appeal.

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At its core, “Rovers” serves as a reminder that Australia breeds its women tough. But behind the strength is also an essential and enticing charm; these are characters with whom you’d love to have a cup of tea and a natter, or maybe share a hip flask swig. There is a real authenticity to its dialogue and lots of humour too, especially courtesy of McDonald’s straight-talking observations as the fearless Jessie Miller in her fashionable hat.

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They may not, as they tell us, do it for the money, but we are certainly glad that they do and under Caroline Dunphy’s direction, the hour-long share of outback tales of trailblazing women flies by as audience imaginations are invigorated and inspired to be, know and raise strong women. It’s like “Thelma and Louise” in terms of defiance, only with an uplifting ending – charming, comforting and colourful, with even a few surprises.

PM pleasure

Joh for PM (Jute Theatre Company and Brisbane Powerhouse)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

July 7 – 16

Like other states, we in Queensland have a distinctness and difference beyond just climate. And in recent history there is nothing more uniquely Queensland than the era of our contradictory longest-serving Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Given his uncompromising conservatism and corruption, mounting a show based on his reign is a brave move, but one which, in the hands of Jute Theatre Company and Brisbane Powerhouse, pays off in the easy entertainment that is “Joh for PM”.

The framing device of the new musical by Stephen Carleton and Paul Hodge is the 1987 campaign launch of Joh’s grandly-ambitious, but ultimately-doomed, Canberra bid, complete with leggy lounge singer host Nikki Van Den Hoogenbranden (Chloe Dallimore), assisted by Kurt Phelan and Stephen Hurst, all dressed in gaudy ‘80s pink spandex, featuring all the stars of the day (#notreally).

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The musical comedy that emerges satirises the events that occurred during the Bjelke-Petersen era, following his early farm life, religious upbringing and courtship of wife Flo, as well as his ‘accidental’ assent to the political heights from which he would fall following that Chris Masters’ ‘Moonlight State’ ABC 4 Corners report and the resulting Fitzgerald enquiry. The original songs that support the narrative are all clever, catchy and engaging, especially when, in ‘We Don’t Do That Nonsense Here’ (about the intended Queensland response to 1971’s controversial six week rugby union tour by the South African Springboks to Australia) audience members are involved as placard-carrying protestors.

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Colin Lane (of Lano and Woodley fame) is wonderful as the titular Joh, capturing his bumbling country-bumpkin manner of mixed metaphors in an embodiment rather than impression of his larger-than-life character. And Barb Lowing is perfect as the forgetful Flo, especially in her later years; her ‘Pumpkin Scone Diplomacy’ rap is the icing of the Iced VoVo as Joh would say. Indeed, Director Kris Stewart makes excellent use of every cast member’s talents. As press secretary Allen Callaghan, Kurt Phelan is appropriately Machiavellian, especially in his Henry Higgins type training of how Joh needs to respond to the media by repetition for emphasis and to buy time, in the memorable “Feed the Chooks” musical number.

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Although the Powerhouse Theatre stage is slightly tight, the razzle dazzle retro staging works a treat. Music follows the time period of the story and enhances the satire with catchy tunes and lyrics that make it difficult not to sing and toe-tap along in pleasure to memorable numbers like ‘Don’t You Worry About That’, ‘Joh For PM’ and ‘White Shoe Shuffle’.

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Thanks to a witty script, appropriately, the show is packed with political references for appreciation by Queenslanders of a certain age, whether that be that they remember the oppressive state of emergency response to Springbok protests or just how the 1985 Sequeb electricity strikes impacted upon their “The Goodies” and “Monkey” tv viewing. While its narrative is obviously rooted in particular times and places of the past, however, the show also contains some contemporary digs at other Australian politicians that are well-received by the audience.

Although those audience members who have read Matt Condon’s “Three Crooked Kings” trilogy may be bothered by a perceived downplay of the stormy time of our history, its surrealism makes it perfect subject matter for satire. As sure as eggs and eggs, as Joh would say, humour is a defining part of Queensland culture and “Joh for PM” stands as evidence of this.

Crouch contemplations

ENGLAND (Nathan Booth, Matt Seery & Metro Arts)

Metro Arts, Gallery

April 19 – 29

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In a post-show Q and A session to his 2013 Brisbane Festival show “I, Malvolio”, Tim Crouch described his advocacy of asking new questions about the artform through increasing consciousness of the alert and alive relationship between audiences and theatre makers, united in a live situation. Those who saw Crouch’s “An Oak Tree” at the Bille Brown Studio in 2011 will expect no less from the experimental theatre maker, given that work’s failure to play by ‘the rules’ by including a guest actor, without script familiarity, being guided through the performance by stage directions fed through an earpiece.

This is the world of Tim Crouch and of his 2007 work “ENGLAND”, which rejects typical theatrical conventions and, instead, invites its audience to help create the work. Perhaps as a consequence, the provocative text has only ever been performed once before in Australia. But this only makes the Queensland premiere of the tricky work from Nathan Booth and Matt Seery, the Hamish and Andy of the Brisbane theatre scene, all the more impressive.

Certainly there are easier challenges in theatre than taking on a show like “ENGLAND”. The script allows for anything; lines are not allocated to performers and there are no stage directions or indications regarding set or lighting. Yet, in Seery’s directorial hands, the scatter becomes a sophisticated performance work that starts as a gallery tour before becoming so much more in its look at life and impending death.

The story is well suited to the intimate venue of Metro Arts’ Gallery and the staging is well managed to account for the limitations of the space, which sees the action move from Brisbane to London and from a clean-lined gallery to a shabby sitting room. It begins with two attendants who share a duologue in talk of a wealthy art-dealer boyfriend in need of a heart transplant and as guide of the audience through a contemporary art exhibition (the work of artists Amelia K Fulton, Brigid Holt, Dana Lawrie, Charlie Meyers and Damien Pasquale), with comment on the works’ amazing colours and how art should be for all. As the audience is urged to look at the lines and colours and even the wood of the floor, we are reminded of the beauty of life’s little details, even as description moves to what’s on the walls of a doctor’s surgery and then in the search for health at any cost. It is a work of two acts at either end of the stylistic spectrum and yet it works, more because of, rather than in spite of, its contrasting forms.

Give the site-specific nature of the work, audience members should aim to arrive early to wander around the gallery until the work begins with performers Barbara Lowing and Steven Tandy parting the crowd to take command of the space. A two-hander from Lowing and Tandy is weighted with expectation; each brings a wealth of experience to the show and, accordingly, in their hands, the dialogue flows easily without overwhelming the delicate nature of the production.

Lowing is a tour-de-force on any stage and Tandy gives a finely balanced performance in counterpoint to the vulnerability and strength of her presence. Indeed, it is testament to the craft of both the artists that they are at most captivating when seated in a conversation of sorts for second half of show, when travel is made to an unnamed country to thank the widow of a heart donor with a gift of a valuable painting. The ambient sound design and intricately composed score, are similarly memorable in their frame of the story’s essential emotions.

“ENGLAND” is a wonderful show of little details and big thematic ideas about, for example, the effect of art and what constitutes its meaning. Much like last week’s Australian Stella Prize annual literary award winner, “The Museum of Modern Love”, it captures art’s ability to ‘wake you up, break your heart and make you fearless’.

The creators of the exhibition/performance/gallery tour that is “ENGLAND” have crafted something very special from its most arbitrary of guidelines. At once beautiful, powerful and devastating, it is an affecting and rewarding theatrical interaction, layered with meaning for contemplation and conversation about the difference between looking and seeing and the need for art in all its manifestations to enrich, sustain and lift us out of life’s hardships.

More Mockingbird

Tequila Mockingbird (shake & stir theatre company)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

October 5 – 15

Shake & Stir’s award-winning play “Tequila Mockingbird” transports its literary classic namesake tale of racial prejudice and the law to small town, rural Australia and the result is both poignant and palpable… for while the Stanton of “Tequila Mockingbird” may be nowhere specific, it is apparent before long that its story is one that is sadly familiar in our modern experience.

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The story begins when a young Indian doctor Sameer Chavan (Shannon Haegler) relocates to the tiny town to work in the medical centre. While the its born-and-bred residents drown their unemployment sorrows in schooners at Sue’s hotel, their attitudes are more archaic than nostalgic in their throwback to times of old and the racial intolerance he experiences soon crescendos into him being wrongly accused of assaulting a young woman (Nelle Lee), who is instead the victim of abuse by her vicious boyfriend Joel (Ross Balbuziente). When the whole town turns against Sameer, lawyer Richard (Bryan Proberts) not only defends him, but attempts to protect him from the simmering social tension.

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It is a taut story whose engagement is enhanced through its delineation from chronological narrative presentation, showing the audience the true events of the night in question only in flashback as part of Sameer’s trial. And even though the violence is not enacted on stage, its effect is no less shocking.

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The aspect that engenders audience attention the most, however, is the show’s stellar performances. Reuniting under the direction of Michael Futcher, each member of the original cast is totally convincing. Nellie Lee brings depth to the role of Rachel, a woman as trapped emotionally in her relationship as she is physically in the town and Ross Balbuziente gives a powerful, intimidating performance as the abusive Joel, passively racist until under the influence of alcohol. Barbara Lowing, however, is outstanding as she brings to vivid life three diverse characters: well-meaning publican Sue (trying to increase revenue with international nights featuring food and cocktails like ‘Tequila Mockingbird), pretentious but well-meaning busy-body Karen and, most memorably as Joel’s drunken bigot mother Trish, utterly unlikeable but also very real in her xenophobia.

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Solid as ever, like Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch, Bryan Proberts’ Richard represents morality, reason and what we all want to be, never having to rethink his position. His stern but fair attitude also characterises his solo-parenting style and there is a natural rhythm to his scenes with his mischievous son Charlie (Nick Skubij). Likewise, Shannon Haegler brings a gentle humility to the role of Sameer.

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Simple but versatile staging and impressive lighting supports the story’s different phases. While Richard’s story is softened by subdued beiges, the hyper-reality of pub politics is illuminated by vibrant neon shades. And spotlighting serves to make the court scene all the more harrowing.

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While the story remains the same, as well should be the case with an award-winning work, the 2016 show is enhanced by some nice touches of update, particularly within the earlier scenes that serve as juxtaposition to the horror that follows. Both Skubij and Balbuziente contribute much to the frivolity when, in one of their respective multiple roles, they make their own fun as teenagers trapped in a town without entertainment. There is of course, a moment when things transition from the laughter of adolescent hijinks to increasingly less-thinly-veiled racist taunts and observation of altered audience reactions is as interesting as the comments that cause it.

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“Tequila Mockingbird” is critically-acclaimed for good reason and given the current political atmosphere in Australia, its turbulent, tension-filled story is sadly now more than ever more authentic than stereotypical. Not only does it provide insight into how our nation is regarded in overseas perception, but it clearly illustrates what can happen when fear and ignorance combine unchecked. The saddest thing of all, however, is not that tragedy that the narrative outlines but how it afterwards fades into history as its rural townsfolk move on to their more usual worries of weather forecasts and rising beef prices. Hopefully, artistic works such as this will assist in ensuring that such outcomes are rendered far from reality.