Combined craft connection

Heartland

Brisbane Powerhouse, Underground Theatre

September 23

Brisbane Festival’s “Heartland” sold out well ahead of its performance. Given the stature of its headliner, composer, producer, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist William Barton, this is of little surprise. Barton is widely recognised as one of Australia’s leading didgeridoo players and composers. (The morning after the performance he is jumping on a plane for Melbourne to appear as part of the AFL grand final’s half-time entertainment.) It is not just Barton performing, but also powerhouse versatile violinist Véronique Serret. Together they combine crafts to share connected stories as traditional songlines and modern storytelling blend in a distinctive evocation of our uniquely Australian landscape.

Brisbane Powerhouse’s intimate Underground Theatre is the perfect location for the expansive but also at-once personal meditation that “Heartland” represents, with moments of poetry written by Barton’s mother Aunty Delmae Barton interspersed throughout the hour-long collaboration. At times, the recitations are almost like slam poetry thanks to Serret’s punchy, powerful delivery, which adds to their soaring emotion. Numbers are fluidly anthologised together and, as with songs of worship, there is not opportunity of need for punctuating applause. Rather the captivated audience is held silent in attention of the stillness of the show’s moments, which are enhanced by lighting normally only seen in the Powerhouse Theatre, which lushes us from the earthy tones of dusk’s glory to fresher emerald greens, for example.

The journey through Dreamtime stories and spirits of the ancient land of their mother country (their heart land) is not just a message of peace, but a showcase of talent. Barton’s virtuosic didgeridoo playing showcases his agility as its drone-ing sounds are interjected with percussive tapping. And when a late show number about the passing of cultures from generation to generation sees the addition of guitar and Barton’s traditional vocals, the unique melding of western music with the ancient sounds of the land uplifts the show’s ending.

Throughout the performance, numbers make use of an expansive sound pallet to vividly elevate their evocation of the resulting unique, meditative world, inspired by the Australian landscape and the power of connection to place. Barton’s didgeridoo mimicry vocalisation is evocative of animal sounds, while the sweet strains of Serret’s upper violin registers layer the musical stories to share a range of sounds and pure emotions. Indeed, there are a number of beautiful moments where earthy didgeridoo sounds are canopied by the sometimes soft touch of the more ethereal violin, along with Serrett’s gentle feathery vocals which rise away to sweet whispering lingers.

Serrett is a dexterous instrumentalist. The concertmaster of the Darwin Symphony Orchestra is far from traditional in her playing, using all parts of the instrument. Short and separated staccato sounds add a dryness to the aesthetic, while playing the back of the violin creates vibrations that resonate in the air.

As audience members, we might not always know the specifics of the story being told, but were certainly recognise the sentiment that comes from the heart and soul at the core of this genre-defying share of connection to county. While the voice of the didgeridoo is a core part of storytelling and teaching, the violin is often said to be the instrument closest to the human voice, so it makes sense that they would pair so well together. United, they serve to elevate the sounds of the language of cultural identity, ensuring that it remains a legacy for generations to come

Super Girl sensitivity

Sunshine Super Girl (Performing Lines)

QPAC, Playhouse Theatre

September 22 – 24

There was a large group of school students in the audience at Opening Night of Brisbane Festival’s Sunshine Super Girl. Clearly unfamiliar with the details of its content, their investment in its story of Wiradjuri tennis legend Evonne Goolagong Cawley AC MBE was such that the genuineness of their reactions to its unfolding were apparent to everyone around. It was wonderful to see, leading to ponder about why there is no film retelling of the tennis champ’s extraordinary tale, given how her sporting prowess as one of the world’s leading players in the 1970s and early 1980s inspired a nation and paved the way for future generations of Indigenous sportspeople (including Ash Barty, who cites her as a key influence and mentor).

Created from interviews with Goolagong Cawley, who was very much part of the play’s development, the fascinating work tells the story of the first Indigenous woman to win a tennis Grand Slam, the first mum in 66 tears to win at Wimbledon and a player whose formidable blend of offensive and defensive play saw her defeat other greats like Margaret Court and Billie-Jean King. The show’s biopic structure takes us on journey of the living legend’s career from small town tennis prodigy to iconic seven-time singles grand slam tournament winner (she also won six in women’s doubles and one in mixed doubles), beginning serendipitously with discovery of the previous owner’s tennis ball in her father’s broken-down-again car. From her humble origins as the third of eight children, whose first tennis outfit was made out of a bedsheet, we see the heart-warming support of her local community to get her to a Sydney tennis school after being scouted in Barellan, however, it is a story that is steeped in poverty, adversity, and racism.

Ella Ferris is magnetic as Evonne, asking ‘why me’? She is immediately endearing as she takes us in to the energetic and innocent world of seven-year-old Evonne, in excitement at the simple joy of discovery, such as when using a tennis racket instead of a wooden bat for the first time. She also captures her contemplative connection to country, as things open to Evonne breathing in the Murrumbidgee, and is charismatic even when taking us through career injuries and illnesses.

The supporting cast includes Katina Olsen, Jacqueline Compton, Lincoln Elliott, Kirk Page and Sermsah Bin Saad who work together to vividly create a range of characters in aid of the storytelling, including amusing John Newcombe and Martina Navratilova caractures (both from Compton) and even sheep to be shawn by Evonne’s father. Their dynamic physical performances work well with the play’s unique staging to enhance its engagement (set and costume design by Romanie Harper).

Atmosphere is created by transformation of QPAC’s Playhouse Theatre to a tennis court, complete with tiered on-stage ‘courtside’ audience seating facing out into the auditorium. Movement upon the court is used as a language with live and mimed ball play action as the sport is imaginatively represented in dance and movement (choreography by Katina Olsen and Vicki Van Hout). A standout scene comes when tennis postures are physically deconstructed in terms of body positioning in its return of a ball represented by a performer. The precision of its realisation is not only quite beautiful in and of itself, but coveys the consideration given to all aspects of the production.

The anecdotal quality to Andrea James’s writing warms us into the story’s sensitivities and the playwright’s love of the game is evident. Under her direction, the tribute is skilfully told to balance Goolagong Cawley’s ultimately triumphant story with its inherent poilticalness, because even though the tennis great thought of herself as apolitically just a tennis player, even this was a political positioning given the pressure of representation. Indeed, her achievements are made all the more impressive when we are reminded of the racism and sexism she showed strength to rise above, through reference to the social and political climate of the time and feature of 1962’s Commonwealth Electoral Act, the 1965 Freedom Rides, the establishment of the tent embassy in Canberra and South African apartheid. The balance this gives to the storytelling ensures that the powerful true tale ultimately serves as a celebration of sprit and passion over adversity, albeit with a distinctively Australian sensibility that makes it an entertaining 95-minute game, set and match.  

‘80s city heart

Queen’s City (Blak Social)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

September 21 – 24

Alethea Beetson’s“Queen’s City” is full of imaginative ideas that on their own could each easily sustain an engaging piece of theatre. Together, they are a lot, meaning that there is much to take away from this new theatre work inspired by missing narratives and rewritten histories in the story of ‘urban’ colonisation as often depicted in museum collections and archives

The provocative show is set in the nostalgic ‘80s in the titular fictional capital city location of Queen’s City, where dreams can supposedly come true. With Queen’s Coast theme parks just to the south and a boundary street division location about to be demolished to make way for culturally significant attractions, including a museum to celebrate the city’s history, as part of upcoming bicentennial celebrations, its resonance as Brisbane is barely veiled, and nor does it need to be.

The story mostly takes place in the heart of the city at All Ways Skate + Sing, which is run by local matriarch Truth. The karaoke bar and skating rink hot spot is a space of equality for all the mob, so when threat of losing it looms large from the government and state institutions on the other side of Restriction Avenue, its riff raff family of attendants Justice, Magick and Grace mobilise to try and save it.

This debut work from performance collective Blak Social (presented by Brisbane Festival, Screen Queensland and Queensland Performing Arts Centre Present) has been many years in the making, resulting in a finely-tuned craftedness to some of its aspects. It’s writing is clever and its humour is spot-on, particularly in its peppering of politically-toned potential pickup lines. While all performers give enthusiastic performances, however, varying dialogue vocal levels mean that impact sometimes fluctuates.

The creativity cresendos when the story sees characters transporting into the past courtesy of the Space Invader and Pac-Man et al arcade game machines that feature as part of its nostalgically neon set. The show is a long one though at 1 hour 40 minutes without interval and it sometimes feels it, as the time travelling storyline sees repeat of previously seen conversations.

Karaoke also features as a vehicle for its storytelling. Song keeper vocalists guide us through the story, signal the occasional song and keep the soundscape on-point beyond expectations of a ‘typical’ indigenous play. Their fourth wall breaks add yet another, this time meta-theatre, layer to all that is going on, however, their rocking original musical numbers both guide things along with plot information (helped by of-the-era karaoke style appearance of their lyrics on screen) and help to cement the show’s ‘80s sensibilities.

“Queen’s City” is a big work. Part gig, part theatre show, part political commentary, its multi-genre approach is all focussed on highlighting the danger of silence and showing how looking back is needed to move forward from our previously unbalanced, singular storytelling. Telling its first nations stories through the modality of the ‘80s works to not only make them accessible in new and interesting ways, but forces contemplation of if first nations art makers had the space then that they do now. And the fun of its ‘80s glam rock aesthetic adds another layer, building upon its visual nostalgia and its ‘Time After Time’ type of musical memories.

Cirque seeing is believing

Cirque O L I O

South Bank Piazza

September 20 – 23

In a Brisbane Festival program anchored by dynamism and optimism, Cirque’s “O L I O” is a perfect school holiday week addition. The world premiere of the family friendly show sees a mixed melting pot of miscellaneous magic, circus, variety and art being presented in the South Bank Piazza.

Though there is nothing new in its acts, their realisation is still astounding especially in its performers’ gravity-defying acrobatic feats which include rapidly spinning from aerial head strap connection and foot fire of a flaming archery arrow while upside down on hand balance stands. Every concept is elevated; partner acrobatic spins occur with each performer is on roller skates and hoop performances become even more impressive as more are added to every limb during a routine, with sound and lighting design adding to the dynamism of each number.

There is no narrative through-line with a range of acts simply taking to the stage to present their physical feats, with dance routine and occasional comedy number punctuation in between. The potpourri approach to its 70-minute curation is perfectly pitched to maintain the awe of younger audience members, who may even find themselves of stage as part of its wonder. Indeed, there is something quite glorious about seeing the joy of children’s experience of live production, especially in response to the simple magic of our emcee (of sorts) clown’s card ticks, ventriloquism and interaction with audience volunteers.

While it is pitched as family entertainment, however, “O L I O” also serves as reminder that magic really is for all ages, especially as things finish up with a lovely shadow puppet reminder of the idea at the centre of Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a Wonderful World’. For a family show with the simple purpose to amaze, astonish and transport audiences, it both a lovely summation of its sentiment and the perfect conclusion to its variety of entertainment.

100 stories in one

Mistero Buffo (Rhum and Clay)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

September 14 – 17

Award-winning UK theatre company, Rhum and Clay’s “Mistero Buffo” is very much a festival type of show, though perhaps Edinburgh more than Brisbane. The one-man romp is a lot, and a lot of it unexpected, even for those who familiar with its descriptor blurb of “an extraordinary, virtuosic romp through a hundred characters and locations by one incredible performer”. For what our 21st century travelling storyteller, a Deliveroo driver at the centre of the gig economy delivers is a subversive, rallying cry for the disillusioned and disenfranchised.

Julian Spooner starts things off by rushing onto Metro Arts’ New Benner Theatre scruffily breathless, with a Deliveroo pack on his back, direct from his last job of the day. What follows soon thereafter, however, is nothing to do with reflection of his Covid gig, but consideration of the hypocrisy of powerful institutions from a much larger narrative perspective in what is essentially a one-man political play about the life of Jesus Christ as a celebrity cult leader more than heaven-sent Son of God, through its retelling of a selection of New Testament tales focussed on Jesus’ miracles.

Nobel Prize-winning playwright Dario Fo’s 1969 play, it turns out, comes with a long history and many previous incantations. What sets this one apart is the incredible physicality at the core of its realisation as Spooner realises all of the 100 characters that make appearance in its stories, whether in monologue, conversation or crowd scenes alike. His incredible talent and versatility are showcased in the skill he shows to not only make each character distinct, but slip in and out of inhabit of them so swiftly and chameleon-like, without the aid of props, but rather just the smallest nuances of gesture, stance or facial expression and changed accent or vocal cadence. There is an exactness, also, to his timing along with sound and lighting, although these elements are limited, allowing focus to rightly be on the precision of his performance. And in terms of this, it is easy to appreciate the award winning show’s rave UK reviews.

As a manifesto and a reclamation of the true intent of bible stories for those they should serve, the show’s content is dense… almost unrelentingly so. Reprieve comes, however, in the biblical story of the Resurrection of Lazarus, which provides abundant humour as the Jongleur charges entrance fees to the event and attempts to sell chairs to the gathering crowd of voyeurs negotiating entrance fees in eager determination to be in the front row for the action of the big name appearance.

The slick energy that Spooner maintains for the 90-minute duration of “Mistero Buffo” is impressive. This means, however, that while the work brings with it some messaging around religious rule and championing the oppressed, it’s a theme that is sometimes drowned in the detail of its mile-a-minute narrative retelling. It’s also quite blasphemous, particularly in its portrayal of Jesus being nailed to the cross while guards gable for his possessions, meaning that while the Monty Python silliness of its exaggeration is often very funny, it’s unlikely to be to everyone’s tastes.

Moor makeover

Othello (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

September 10 – October 1

“Othello” has long been one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays given its question of beliefs around race and gender as part of its poignant commentary on the universality of the human condition. But with its challenges comes great potential, and it is a potential well and truly realised in Queensland Theatre’s outstanding production of the classic as part of the 2022 Brisbane Festival program. The company’s first production of the tragedy (which premiered in Cairns in 2021 after the COVID- cancellation of its intended 2020 Brisbane season) is an electric adaption that approaches the Shakespearean story from a uniquely-Queensland perspective, as Jimi Bani and Jason Klarwein inject some Australian and Torres Strait Islander culture in a powerful tri-lingual (Kala Lagaw Ya, Yumpla Tok and English) tapestry together of the two great storytelling traditions of Shakespeare and Wagadagam.

The complex work follows Othello (Jimi Bani), a Moorish army general who controversially marries Desdemona (Emily Burton), the white daughter of the Senator Brabantio (in this case a wealthy cane farmer played by Eugene Gilfedder) and how his mind is poisoned to the green-eye monster of jealousy over a fictitious affair between his wife and squadron leader Cassio (Benjin Maza), suggested by his manipulative and vengeful ensign Iago (Andrew Buchanan), who is angered by the fact that Othello has promoted Cassio before him. Rather than Renaissance Venice and Cyprus, this “Othello” is set between 1942 Cairns and the Torres Strait Islands in tribute to the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion and the 800 Torres Strait Islander men (including Jimi Bani’s great grandfather, the late Ephraim Bani Snr, and his grandfather, the late Solomon Gela) volunteered to protect the northern tip of Australia during World War II.

The assured storytelling that ensures from this pioneering approach makes the play accessible to all audience members, with Klarwein’s detailed direction positioning the audience to be immediately engaged in its narrative. The classic tale of jealousy, betrayal and revenge is an ultimately brutal story including blatant racism and scenes of domestic violence, yet Klarwein finds comedy in aspects of its telling, particularly in its early scenes as actor gestures and reactions not only bring Shakespeare’s words to life, but enrich them with emphasis of intended and incidental meanings. Iago’s use of mocking language when meeting his wife and Desdemona’s confidant Emelia (Sarah Ogden), not only tells us much their relationship from a gender politics perspective, but gives the audience some easy humour to which it can respond.

While some of the play’s beautiful, eloquent language is given over to levity, such as Othello’s declaration that he will not be destroyed by jealousy “for she had eyes and chose me”, there are still a number of lovely moments in this retelling, thanks to the play’s creatives. Simona Cosentini and Simone Tesorieri’s costume design establishes Desdemona’s purity and innocence and Brady Watkin’s composition and sound design works with Richard Roberts’ set design to create some stunning imagery, such as when the sheer white curtains of the initially humble staging are moved aside to reveal a pool of water that becomes an integral part of scenes such as Othello’s physical response to Iago’s vivid descriptions of Desdemona’s alleged sexual infidelity. Ben Hughes’ lighting design, meanwhile, notably darkens things into the petty villain Iago’s soliloquy revelation of motiveless malignancy, drawing the audience into the character’s outline of his intention to be evened with the allegedly lusty Othello, ‘wife for wife’.  

Buchanan is brilliant as the Machiavellian Iago who drives the plot of the play. He not only regales in conveyance of the villain’s duplicitous nature, but he illustrates the intriguing character’s essential chameleon-ness as he adapts his manner and style of speaking to suit the differing circumstances of audience and purpose, using language to both manipulate others and disguise his true intentions while planting the seeds that grow into Othello’s paranoia. Whether bitterly brooding the emotionally-charged idea that Othello hath leaped into his seat bed and seduced Emilia abroad, alleging loyalty to Othello in assurance of his honesty and reluctance to implicate Desdemona and Cassio, or feigning friendship in counsel to Cassio to seek Desdemona’s help in getting reinstated after dismissal for fighting when drunk on duty, he is marvellous in show of Iago’s multi-faceted manipulations.

Bani, meanwhile, appropriately conveys Othello’s central humanity, which is essential to the play. The titular tragic hero is a meaty physical and emotional role and he fills it with both initial, purposeful authority and the passion of love’s hyperbolic extremes. He easily takes us on journey from powerful and respected Captain of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion through the torment of ‘knowing’ (rather than not) of Desdemona’s disloyalty to dignified but vulnerable comprehension of what he has done. His ‘put out the light’ soliloquy rationalisation of trying to save other men from Desdemona’s supposed infidelity is delivered to an absolutely silent, captivated audience and his final plea to ‘speak of me as… one who loved not wisely but too well,’ is a commanding elevation of one of the play’s most poignant moments.

Buchanan and Bani are as supported by a strong cast of players. Burton is the best she’s ever been as Desdemona. Not only is she passionate in the character’s love for Othello, which assures but also unnerves her husband in water of the seeds of his suspicion, but she strikes the delicate balance required to make the character dutiful, but also of some strength. Ogden is also praiseworthy as her worldlier friend and confidante, Emilia. Together, the duo credibly portrays a genuine friendship with their conversation in Desdemona’s preparation for bed highlighting their shared qualities more than their differences. And Maza’s Cassio is an audience favourite thanks to his cheeky more than courtly demeanour, especially in drunken assurance that he can stand and speak well enough.

Masterful handling of the story’s tragic twists and turns make experience of this “Othello” seem like less that its 2 hours 40-minute running time (including interval). Its weave together of Kala Lagaw Ya (one of the language of the Torres Strait), Youmpla Tok (Torres Strait Creole) and Shakespearean English is seamless. Meaning is never lost in transitions as each language is used to distinct effect, for example when flirty exchanges occur between Cassio and Bianca (Tia-Shonte Southwood) to both add some tonal levity and setup the scenario of Desdemona’s symbolic love token appearing in Cassio’s hands as the ocular proof evidence (in this case a gift from elders to Othello’s mother) of her supposed betrayal.

While its still-startling conclusion has been changed slightly, this “Othello” shows how many of the story’s themes around gender, difference, jealousy, ambition and love are still relevant today. And the reactions of those audience members new to the story serve as testament to the power of its retelling. It may have taken 52 years for the tale of Shakespeare’s Moor to make its way to the Queensland Theatre stage, but with a resounding opening night standing ovation through four curtain calls, it is clear that it has definitely been worth the wait.

Photos c/o – Brett Boardman