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

Cosmic complexities

Constellations (Queensland Theatre)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

March 9 – April 9

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Life is about choices right? Well, not really, according to British playwright Nick Payne’s “Constellations”, which is based on the scientific notion that we might be living in one of many universes which are co-existing simultaneously. It’s something to do with String Theory or Doctor Who philosophy 101 about alternative universes that exist separated only by a millisecond of time and a nanometre of space, without ever having contact.

Every moment that Roland (Lucas Stibbard) and Marianne (Jessica Tovey) share is at the mercy of the universe, meaning that there are infinite possibilities of their two lives shared in consideration of everything they have ever or never done. When they first meet at a barbecue, he says he is in a relationship and she is just making conversation. The odds of them getting together are astronomical; he is a beekeeper and she is a physicist working in the field of quantum cosmology. But when their worlds keep colliding, all the possibilities of their life together are shared, from first date to final farewell, through conversations of both varying physical proximity and intimacy.

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It is an up and down relationship reflected also in the undulating stage of celestial blue pin-pricked by light apart from during the complete blackout between some scenes switches. Ben Hughes’ lighting design serves not only to complement Anthony Spinaze’s set design but fulfils a significant narrative purpose as sections of the stage are lit to border character interactions as hint of the underlying issue that will take things in a totally different direction to initial anticipation.

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This is a play about language and initially, especially, deliberate attention is needed before the narrative’s direction makes its latter half more absorbing. This is especially so because of its organisation of often short and sharp scenes that are immediately repeated, sometimes with only slightly different emphases, sometimes with wholly different resolutions. Once settled into its unique structure, however, it is easy to appreciate the cast’s nuanced performances and Kat Henry’s subtle directorial choices that combine in its success.

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Stibbard and Tovey are both excellent and their repetition of scenes with just the slightest of transformed touch, a testament to the craft of both. And their chemistry is ample. As the neurotic academic Marianne, Tovey carefully balances vulnerability with awkward bluntness in blurt of whatever is on her mind. Stibbard’s Roland, however, is vulnerable in a more traditional sense, lovable in his sometimes self-doubt, eyes alight with enthusiasm in speak of beekeeping and devastated in his yearn for things to be different.

“Constellations” is an intelligent and powerful piece of theatre that is both a beautiful love story and an emotional delve into the mysteries that remain in our understanding of the multiverse, perfectly timed at 80 minutes without interval and perfectly prepared for without prior knowledge of its narrative journey. Although it is a slow burn at first, its humanity will sneak up on you and leave you with much to contemplate about the complexity of life, the universe and everything.

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

Killer collaboration

Snow White (La Boite, Opera Queensland & Brisbane Festival)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

September 3 – 24

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Below a chaotic forest of mirrors and musical instruments aloft La Boite’s Rounhouse Theatre stage is an intimate place of beautiful song and mesmerising music. Mirrors are cleverly used to help bounce rays around the space as audiences are dropped in to the dark fairy-tale world of a potently-reimagined “Snow White”.

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Using Suzie Miller’s poetic text and Zulya Kamalova’s eclectic musical score, the part opera, part musical, part play not only retells the familiar story but, under Lindy Hume’s direction, upends fairy-tale expectations from the outset. As the corseted and quite fantastic The Mirror, Kanen Breen tangos in temptation by the Queen one minute and sexualises Snow White the next.

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Clearly The Mirror (and its associations with vanity in society) has a significant role in the text’s darkness and destruction. More musical than operatic in his stage presence, as emcee of sorts interacting with the audience in beguiling voice and brightening the stage with his every appearance, Breen is the villain the audience hates to love; his voice in song is exquisite and his characterisation is fabulous.

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The story of “Snow White” is certainly suited to operatic treatment given its intensity and larger-than-life scale, despite centring on the complexity of the mother-daughter relationship. And Italian-born mezzo soprano Silvia Colloca is a wonderful Queen, initially powerful and vain, but later of broken-down fragility. Stephanie Pickett is similarly strong as Snow White.

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Together their voices harmonise beautifully in the poison apple scene climax. And Colloca’s vocals of guttural-like mourning soon-after are almost palpable with emotion. Baritone Michael Tuahine is similarly a multi-faceted and morally-conflicted Huntsman who literally chases Snow White as prey around the theatre’s stalls.

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The four character narrative (sans dwarves) is musically driven, expressed succinctly through singing, which is all excellent. The music is like-wise impressive, evocative and eclectically bright, but also brutal as it memorably journeys the audience from the foreboding of the Huntsman’s chase of Snow White to an almost jaunty number as he sets in for her slaughter to Ben Hughes’ sinister steely-blue lighting.

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This is, indeed, a lush and lavish production down to its every little detail of Sarah Winter’s set design, like the apples that line the stage edge. And its sophisticated lighting adds significantly to its experience in the aftermath of the poison apple scene, for example, where it supports the haunting cello sounds that hang in the air.

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Seeing the two Brisbane Festival Snow Whites within the same week may have brought anticipatory expectations of comparison, but La Boite Theatre’s contemporary reimagining of Grimm’s fairy tale really is beyond compare. This is an at-once enticing and confronting theatrical experience. It’s sex, violence and swearing ensure that it is very adults only, despite the array of stuffed animals that appear at intermission to populate the forest.

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While its second act slows comparative to the measured pace of Act One, and therefore seems to fall flatter, as years later Snow White’s beauty blossoms her into womanhood as her mother withers, there is still much to rave about with regards to the production. Its years of collaborative planning have paid off significantly with a killer show of great things as its juxtapositions of genre merge in vision to become a truly memorable night of theatre.

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Photos c/o – Dylan Evans

Gritty, gripping and game as Ned

Kelly (Queensland Theatre Company)

The Arts Centre Gold Coast

March 13 – 14

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“Kelly” opens in November 10, 1880. Ned Kelly (Steven Rooke) is in his prison cell, the day before he is due to be hanged, having been found guilty of the wilful murder of Constable Thomas Lonigan at Stringybark Creek. A priest enters to give him his last rites, however, the priest is soon revealed to be Dan Kelly (Kevin Spink) – Ned’s younger brother believed burnt to death at the gang’s final fateful stand against police at the Glenrowan Hotel. He has come to stay goodbye and set things right before fleeing to Queensland, seeking forgiveness from his older brother for his own cowardly part in the final confrontation with police. But first, Ned has some questions about how Steve Hart died.

Ned is unrelenting and defiant (“I choose the rope” … “I don’t want to pass quietly; I want to pass noisy as hell”) but also light-hearted in some of his brotherly taunts. Indeed, in his initial interactions with the prison guard (Anthony Standish) before Dan’s entry, he presents a barrage of blasphemous insults (“You’re so ugly that the loneliest dog in the world wouldn’t f**k your face”, authentically in keeping with his penchant for lyrical language and the tone of his 1879 Jerilderie Letter, dictated to Joe Byrne, in which he refers to the police as ignorant unicorns with puny cabbage heart looking faces.

Although this provides much of the play’s humour, it belies the depth of drama and consideration in this eloquent imagining. And there is much eloquence to Matthew Ryan’s script, which is witty, dramatic and thoroughly well-written, with clever foreshadowing in Ned’s pondering of possible final words and disgust with the death mask made after Mad Dan Morgan’s execution. And one can only anticipate what he comes up with in next month’s “Brisbane”, the play he has been commissioned by QTC to write about Brisbane during World War Two.

“So what’s this about anyway?” I amusingly heard someone in the row behind ask as the show was about to begin. Perhaps you do need some prior knowledge. History reveals that Dan and Ned disagreed and has also brought forth the myth that Dan survived Glenrowan and fled to Queensland (no less than four men claimed to be Dan Kelly at the end of their lives, the show’s program reveals). And there is also long-held rumour of a homosexual relationship between Dan and Steve Hart, another member of the infamous gang. The only thing missing is acknowledgement of the political nature of Kelly’s plight and his belief that that Irish Australians had to throw off the yoke of oppressive British colonialism to secure their rights, which is only hinted at in throwaway lines.

Under Todd MacDonald’s direction, “Kelly” is full of dramatic moments as Dan confronts Ned for putting a death sentence on the gang members’ heads through his actions at Stringybark Creek. And as the impulsive and full of self-importance Ned, Rooke is fearless, bringing the character to raging life, despite the barrier of shackled hands. “Read the newspaper,” he says with undeniable presence; “I’m a national hero”. Indeed, each of the three actors puts in a sterling performance, even Anthony Standish, who doubles and triples as backstory characters to present a layman’s view, as well as reappearing as the gleeful guard who taunts Ned with details of his impending fate

“Kelly” is certainly an intimate show and the staging is appropriately simple in its minimalism, with the action taking place in a wall-less raked box of a cell, almost like a boxing ring, about which the brothers dance around before they square off. This is enhanced by Ben Hughes’ beautiful lighting, which warms the moments of recollection in subtle transition from the reality of grey-tinged goal life.

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As the tale of a man whose story has outgrown his life, “Kelly” has all the elements of great tragedy and high drama, which makes it an entirely engaging theatre experience. Told with such intimacy, this take of the fractured band of brothers, serves only to remind audience members that this is the story of a young man (Ned was just 25 when he died). While initially Ned is positioned sympathetically, through recall of his heroism in saving a young boy from drowning, he is also presented as a character of little remorse, wanting burial in consecrated ground, not to save his soul but because he deserves it. (“You killed people!” Dan reminds him. “But they weren’t very nice,” Ned replies.) Similarly, the audience is presented with two possible, equally powerful versions of Fitzpatrick’s last moments at Stringybark Creek, allowing audience members to come to their own conclusions about Ned’s place as national hero or glorified horse thief. In doing so, “Kelly” boldly presents its hypothetical story in a gritty, gripping manner that makes it a must-see Australian work.

Photos c/o – http://www.queenslandtheatre.com.au/