Exile engagement

St Mary’s in Exile (Queensland Theatre Company)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

August 27 – September 25

Brisbane may be the place we love to hate, but it comes with it’s a wonderful array of stories. And there is perhaps no story as epic as the complex conflict between Father Peter Kennedy and the institution of the Catholic Church, leading to one of the largest schisms in the church’s modern history when, in 2009, hundreds of people literally walked away from their spiritual home of St Mary’s Catholic Parish in South Brisbane. It is from this rich real-life incident that Queensland Theatre Company has created the riveting work “St Mary’s in Exile”. Bravely tacking re-evaluation of a story already told less than a decade ago, the work documents the most local story in the theatre company’s history (given that events occurred just meters away from its South Brisbane location) in a rigorous work of weighty ideas explored through author David Burton’s thoughtful, intelligent script.

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The passionate and public conflict between the diverse inner city church community and the Vatican is revisited without prejudice, beginning on the stormy night when, after refusing to resign or to fall in line with orthodoxy, an excommunicated Father Peter (Peter Marshall) is packing up to go into exile. A mysterious young homeless visitor (Ben Warren) walks out of the rain, wanting to know the story behind this unconventional holy man and what drove him to defiance, and so the story unfolds of how and why the Father Peter and his radical side-kick Father Terry Fitzpatrick (Kevin Spink) chose not to play by the ‘club rules’, changing words of the liturgy and Eucharist and allowing a statue of Buddha in the foyer. The work is an examination of Father Peter’s journey, and of those who supported and opposed him in this time. And when, in the second act, the threads come together, the result is a story at times funny, at times sad and at times challenging.

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A simple, abstract design aesthetic represents a sense of sacred space, but still allows for full focus on the show’s dense ideas and multiple timelines. Functional sliding doors facilitate swift scene changes and concrete textures contrast with natural wood furniture and religious symbolism. Vibrancy comes from its community of parishioners, reflected in both their costumes and characters.

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Under the direction of Jason Klarwein, all cast members deliver solidly with rich character portraits. Peter Marshall gives an emotionally charged performance as Father Peter, supported perfectly by Kevin Spink as the comparatively casual Father Fitzpatrick and Joss McWilliam as Archbishop John Bathersby. In his QTC debut, Ben Warren makes a memorable show of his early cat-and-mouse interaction with Father Peter before settling into steadfast confrontation of the beloved father regarding the authority of the church. Chenoa Deemal is engaging as the voice-of-reason partitioner Beth and Luisa Prosser (also in her QTC debut) is a lively, formidable Ruth. As the loyal and sensitive Joseph, Bryan Probets again proves what an asset he is to any production, taking audience members from a moving monologue expression of Corinthians 13’s commentary of faith, hope and love, to a truly hilarious Tony Abbott impression as part of the play’s Q&A re-enactment.

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As in reality, humour exists within the work’s moments of great tension, which aids audience engagement; jokes about West End gentrification and the Go Between Bridge not only emphasises the place of the story between reality and myth, but help enhance its appeal as a warm, human work. This is more than just a David and Goliath story. Indeed, its focus on community and faith allows provocation of much post-show discussion about its important, relevant themes, including answer to the question, ‘were they exiled or did they exile themselves?’

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“St Mary’s in Exile” is a powerful and compelling piece of theatre. As a world premiere of an Australian work, it is worthy of celebration in itself, however, its profound examination of grand themes cement it as a timeless telling of a local but also much larger story. Its experience is a reminder not only of the immediacy of theatre as an art from to engage audiences with contemporary issues, but also that extraordinary events are happening around us every day… even in Brisbane.

A fine five farce

One Was Nude and One Wore Tails

Room to Play Independent Theatre, Paddington Substation

May 5 – 14

A garbage man, a flower seller and a policeman, meet on the street. It’s not start of a joke, but it still has a very funny outcome, along with its comment on the pretensions of social class, identity and status. This is the beginnings of the premise of Dario Fo’s one-act farce, brought to life by independent theatre company, Room to Play. Throw in a naked ambassador who has taken refuge in a rubbish bin and you have the ingredients of a very funny show.

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It begins with two council workers, played by Matthew Filkins and Colin Smith, passing the time with an in-depth discussion about divinity. While one is being charmed by a woman (Elise Grieg), the other discovers a naked man (Jack Henry) hidden inside his rubbish bin, forced as the stowaway has been to take refuge during rapid escape from the scene of a love affair. All sorts of silliness ensues when an oblivious policeman comes upon the scene in the form of Ben Warren, complete with pig snout and snorts to punctuate his dialogue.

Each of the five cast members is impressive in performance, particularly as things progress to all sorts of crazy chaos, never missing a beat in their banter. Colin Smith anchors the show as the most everyman of the over-the-top characters, playing particularly well against Ben Warren, who is, himself, notably impressive in his physicality and necessitated over-the-top characterisation.

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Although it starts with philosophical ponderings about how being a nothing, makes one the beginning of everything, and thus divine, don’t be fooled that “One Was Nude and One Wore Tails” is not going to provide anything but mayhem in its tightly-woven 50ish minutes running time (a palatable length even for non-farce-fans). From its opening ocker moments of song to cement it within its Australian context, this show is out outlandishly out of control (#inagoodway) and while consideration of its themes about the role of clothing in definition of our treatment within society can result, this focus in not necessary for its appreciation and enjoyment. Indeed, with its clowning, slapstick and vaudeville sensibility, the show has much to offer all range of audience members and, as such, serves as an Anywhere Festival highlight.

You can find all of my Anywhere Festival reviews on the festival website.

Transcultural transcendence

심청 ⟨Shimchong⟩: Daughter Overboard! (Brisbane Powerhouse and Motherboard Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

February 18 – 23

The epic tale of Shimchong, a motherless young girl who sacrifices herself to the under-sea Dragon King God in order to restore her father’s sight, is revered with Korean mythology. Yet, as noted by Director Jeremy Neideck, it is a story with significant currency, given this country’s recent refugee crises. And fittingly, political allusions and overt observation abound in this latest work from Motherboard Productions, in narrative premise, dialogue and a soundtrack that includes lyrics such as ‘they don’t speak for us; they don’t deserve our trust.’

“심청 ⟨Shimchong⟩: Daughter Overboard!” is more melancholy than Motherboard’s last WTF hit “지하 Underground”, but appropriately so given its central political premise. Still, there are many moments of comedy as child’s play is used to parody its social commentary, complete with drawings, dioramas and torch-play to take audiences along a ride from abandoned submarine to a wrecked Kookaburra Queen as Shimchong (Alinta McGrady) encounters the Dragon King, who, according to prophecy, will be the cause wild sea storms and drownings.

Every aspect of the show is art. Clever props and original staging allow audiences to be taken to its distinct settings, with water maintaining place as cohesive tie. It trickles around the place as seagulls soar and jellyfish float across the stage’s palette. Lush lighting evokes an array of emotions, while its soundscape is stark in its realism, forcing characters to appropriately compete their dialogue against the sounds of hovering helicopters in its later lost-at-sea scenes. And costumes are versatile to allow for the multiple roles of many of its performers.

Giema Contini, in particular, transitions easily between multiple character roles, including as a memorably ignorant Susan from Noosa. And Ben Warren shows a Graham-Kennedy-esque comic skill, particularly alongside Younghee Park in the children’s show parody ‘Great Australian Bomb Making’. Park is of fine voice in powerful delivery of the peppy anti-government manifesto ‘Burn It Down’, while Alinta McGrady anchors the soundtrack with a soulful ‘I Want to be Seen’ and the haunting finale ‘All My Ghosts’.

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Accompanied by an array of instruments, songs range from the melodic contemplation to upbeat tempos and are memorable for their music as much as the messages, as is the case with ‘Roll Up’, a carnvialesque Ekka ditty with bouncy lyrics of urge to help the homeless and unemployed. Humour also often comes from the slap of lyrical, eloquent segments, also told in Korean, with ocker Australian lingo like ‘buckley’s chance’. Together the work to form a unique transcultural storytelling experience that typifies Motherboard’s conceptually driven, interdisciplinary work.

The story of Shimchong, destined to be Queen despite her determined disinterest in itself is a beautiful example of a myth of sacrifice such as those central to many cultural heritages. Thematically transcended to modern Australia’s border sovereignty vs loss of lives at sea struggle, it acquires a new resonance. With danger, drums and even a dunking machine, “심청 ⟨Shimchong⟩: Daughter Overboard!” is a magically synergy that is best experienced rather than read about. Although it drags a little in latter part of its excessive 100 minutes running time, its mix of the political and personal not only reflects the focus of WTF’s aim to feature international works that challenge the traditional definitions of theatre, but demonstrates all that theatre should be… innovative, engaging and relevant as means of investigating the world and ourselves.

Shock storytelling

The Pillowman (Shock Therapy Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

August 19 – 29

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“The first duty of storyteller is to tell a story,” the audience is told early on in “The Pillowman”. It is an important line, delivered as part of a writer’s interrogation by totalitarian state police about the gruesome content of his short stories which often depict violence against children, and their similarities to a number of local child murders. More than just defense of his innocence, however, it is a statement that encapsulates the essence of the show, which layers stories within stories from every character.

As contrast to the harsh reality of Katurian’s police interrogation while his brother Michal waits in the next room, his simply told fables are re-enacted and retold to the audience by characters stepping outside the action for delivery through monologue narration and shown through clever use of shadowplay and even puppetry that belie their horror. Indeed, there is a magic to the puppetry thanks primarily to the masterful efforts of puppeteer Anna Straker.

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Ben Warren brings a sympathetic portrayal to the impatient and arrogant protagonist Katurian, whose collection of unpublished short pieces of fiction shock the police and audience members, but not his disabled brother. Barely off stage, Warren gives a first-class performance to take audiences on a roller coaster ride of emotions as backstory is revealed. Tama Matheson, meanwhile, has the difficult task of playing Michal, the naïve, gullible and vulnerable brother who is slow to get things following years of abuse. With his shuffling gate, jutted jaw, dangling lip and often-agape mouth, he conveys an essential social ignorance in every aspect of his performance, eyes always darting away from contact. And although his mannerisms reflect a realism, the character’s language allows the audience disconnection enough to discourage discomfort in their laughter. The relationship conveyed between the childlike Michal and his brother Katurian is a real highlight, reflecting the intimacy that must exist in a fraternal relationship in which one sibling assumes a pseudo-parental role.

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As the good(ish) cop/bad cop duo of policeman and detective, Hayden Jones and Sam Foster provide immediate and enduring humour through their razor-sharp dialogue. Foster, in particular shows an assuredness on stage that adds much to the menace of the short-tempered, explosive, violent and vindictive Ariel, providing many of the show’s early darkly humourous moments, for as a comedy, Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman” is as black as they come; its laughs are of the type to be quickly followed by covered mouths and guilty looks around others in the audience of co-conspirators to appreciation of its delicious darkness

The show is long and even though you could easily walk away from the 90 minute first half entirely satisfied, the second instalment delivers a difficult to anticipate but quite satisfying ending as its intertwined intricacies are revealed amongst the twists and turns of its dark plot and uncomfortable imagery. Without doubt, Shock Therapy Productions has chosen an extremely complex and difficult choice of work in “The Pillowman”, but it is one that is delivered with extreme quality in every regard.

“The Pillowman” (which, it turns out is not such an elusive title after all) has much to offer, the narrative intricacies of which shouldn’t be spoiled in review beyond giving warning about its dark and disturbing content and description and portrayal of violence, a theme that often emerges in theatrical consideration of the darker side of human behaviours. Shock Therapy should be commended for resisting urge to ridicule its subject matter and, rather, being brave enough to show the audience the not so digestible aspects of violence that are, unfortunately, very much part of human experience. Although it may sometimes be at the expense of viewer comfort, the show’s central focus on storytelling shows just how gripping a well-told narrative can be. The addition of puppetry, physical theatre and shadow play in fusion, only serve to add to the appeal of this ingeniously disturbing show.