‘60s summer stories

Away (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

October 25 – November 13

Along with “Summer of the Seventeenth Doll”, Michael Gow’s “Away” is Australian Drama 101. The play is a classic work easily able to be revisited and seen anew through a contemporary lens, celebration of which is central to La Boite Theatre’s revival of the much-loved work.

The summer print of usher outfits and preshow of-era soundtrack of The Seekers’ ‘Georgie Girl’ et al, transports us to the story’s summer beach holiday represented simply on stage. However, while Gow’s memory play is of a childhood of idyllic summer holidays of this sort, when the night hues unsettle from their pre-show blanket of the stage, we are taken not to the beach of its 1967 setting, but rather the conclusion of a school’s production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in which young Tom (Reagan Mannix) has starred as Puck.

The play serves as punctuation to the school year before families depart for summer holidays appropriate to their respective status. Class conflicts are evident as Tom’s immigrant parents, still full of wonder around the novelty of a summer Christmas, are condescended to by the strict mother of his classmate Meg (Billy Fogarty). Middle class Gwen (Emily Burton) is appalled that the working class English migrants will be spending their holidays in a lean-to-tent, as opposed to their prime caravan park spot. Meanwhile, school headmaster Roy (Bryan Probets) is flying his wife Coral (Christen O’Leary) to a glitzy Gold Coast resort for some rest and recreation, in hope to snap her out of her all-consuming grief over the recent death of their conscript son in Vietnam.

From its opening scene, issues of its time of social upheaval swirl around the play’s smaller, personal and human stories, for all three families have their own turmoil and are struggling in some way. When a force of Shakespearean proportions forces their respective vacations to fall apart, their crises are brought to a head by their intersection. As their secrets are shared, relationships are forged and repaired and new hope is fostered.

Mannix gives a brilliant performance in his professional debut, easily illustrating his character’s development from enthusiastic schoolboy to mature, mindful young adult and Fogarty’s conveyance of Meg’s stoicism serves a strong complement to this. Alongside them, a talented who’s who of Brisbane theatre fills out the cast. Ngoc Phan and Kevin Spink capture their character’s immigrant optimism in their easy-going attitudes in mask of the painful reality they know they will be facing in the future. As Meg’s father Jim, Sean Dow gives us patient character counterpoint to the blunt force that is his wife Gwen. Burton is brilliant in making Gwen immediately unlikeable as the highly strung woman always in need of a Bex and a bit of a lie down. However, while her manner is obviously hiding a deep hurt, her dialogue is so brittle and snipes so viciously spat out that some of the impact of her emotional journey is lost by the suddenness of her character change.  

Proberts is excellent as stoic headmaster Roy, delivering one of the play’s most moving monologues in reflection of the price needed to be paid for the life we have, in defence of his son’s conscription to Vietnam. And O’Leary is mesmeric in her delicate realisation of his fragile and frayed wife Coral, ready to retreat into the darkness and shadows that appear as metaphor for her grief.

A textured aesthetic suits the magical realism at the centre of director Daniel Evans’ vision. A swelling soundscape and sepia-toned nostalgia takes the audience into the post-holiday realities that end the play. Shakespearean references abound as a tempest of a storm catalyses a change for each family. Indeed, Brady Watkins sound design and composition, and Ben Hughes’ lighting design effectively combine to storm us through new year’s eve to 1968 and into interval.

Of era props and some exquisite 1960s gowns, assist in transporting audiences away into the on-stage world. Indeed, Sarah Winter’s set and costume design reveals an attention to detail even down to the shell cases that surround the stage lighting of the central stage. The round stage works well, not just for in-the-round audience engagement, but to represent the divide in families as conversations occur from across its sides. And Liesel Zink’s choreography is impressive, both in the initial ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ segment, and in the show’s creative considerations of all the opportunities of space to give levels from which observers can look down upon the action.

At 140 minutes duration (including interval), this “Away” is a long one, with not only inclusion of a play scene within a play, but an end of season campground concert performance, which although provide a comic balance to the heavy themes of the narrative’s drama, do drag things a little. Mostly, there is a delicate balance between the show’s tones, as fantasies and dreams explode from its domestic naturalism, however, some moments don’t land as well as others, such as when audience laughter continues without recognition of the mood change coming from the urgency of Tom’s desire to lose his virginity to Meg, meaning that the production isn’t as moving as it should be in some moments.

“Away” is a political and social time capsule story about reconciliation, acceptance of life’s obstacles and the need to move forward. Yet, in its exploration of suspicion of outsiders and fear of change, it still has a lot to say about who we were, through the lens of who we are now that we are more grown up as a nation, making it a worth a visit, especially for anybody yet to experience this classic and widely produced work from one of our country’s most significant playwrights.

Photos c/o Morgan Roberts

Triple eXcellence

Triple X (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

March 6 – April 1

“Triple X” is the brand-new Australian story and world premiere that audiences have been waiting a year for, given that the co-production between Queensland Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company made it only to a second preview performance before being devastatingly shut down due to COVID-19 in 2020. And the anti-romance is most definitely been worth the wait. The funny play is an honest and moving love story that is both powerful in the way it reflects society back to us, but incredibly entertaining in its unprecedented storytelling about love in the 21st century.

Scotty (Josh McConville) is living the dream. A successful Wall Street banker, he is about to marry his beautiful and very rich girlfriend. On the eve of their wedding, his family descends of his recently purchased multi-million dollar Tribeca loft. While the philosophical differences between Scott, his just-returned-from-Nepal socially-conscious lesbian sister Claire (Contessa Treffone in a Queensland Theatre debut) and his straight-out-of-Kentucky conservative mother Deborah (the multi award winning Christen O’Leary) are clear, this conflict is just beginning. Behind the brash excess of the ‘player’ masculine veneer he bounces off his friend Jase (Elijah Williams), Scotty is really existing in internally-conflicted quiet desperation, wondering what he is doing with his life. As an audience, we come to realise this through flashbacks to his months beforehand initial interaction and then ongoing affair with charismatic trans drag performer Dexie (Glace Chase), a self-proclaimed typical stop on men’s journey to their destination sexuality.

Just as Lady Gaga synopsised, Scotty and Dexi are soon caught in a bad (but raunchy) romance, reflection on which causes Act Two to pivot in its flashbacks, including explanation of why Deborah is triggered into an out-of-nowhere rant in Act One. With his secret on his mind, Scotty must make a choice between the comfort of familiarity and the fulfilment of a future he never envisioned.

Not only is this vital work a unique story, but it is told from the unique perspective of its straight male protagonist. And McConville is excellent in the role of Scotty, giving a performance that reflects that different layers of his character as he makes sense of the attraction he and Dexi share and then navigates their resulting out-of-bounds love affair. It is playwright, Glace Chase (who is originally from Australia but left almost a decade ago for New York) however, who not only gives audiences the first Australian mainstage love story involving a transgender person, but also a phenomenal performance. Chase is magnetic as the candid Dexi, bold but vulnerable and funny, except when trying to be on stage in her club act. She is likeable and genuine and someone you want in your orbit. Indeed, she and Scotty are both presented as very real characters, complex in their multi-dimensions, sometimes unpleasant but always identifiable through their inner conflicts, which makes the show’s laid-bare moments so emotionally affecting. O’Leary, too, gifts Scotty’s mum a familiar authenticity as she expresses everything she is thinking, continuing with conversations when others have moved on and assuming an apparent ignorance-is-bliss acceptance of convenient explanations that align with her own wants.

Designer Renee Mulder has provided a stylish split level set to authentically locate the action in Scotty’s home and flashback transitions are all smooth. In fact, the whole experience is well-paced, including its insertion of Dexi’s Candyland club performance as part of transitions between present and flashback scenes. Rather than existing merely as filler, these offer an additional perspective as to the truth of her character as her adorable awkwardness of often not quite nailing it only enhances our favour.

The production is filled with carefully-curated attentions to detail, down to the level of the strangest of interval song versions, whose meanings becomes clear when we return to Dexi’s club act soon after. Its outstanding script also sees themes of toxic masculinity, societal expectations, gender politics and love intricately woven together. Indeed, multitalented and multiple award-winning playwright Chase’s clever, honest writing takes us from absolutely hilarity courtesy of O’Leary’s physical comedy of alarm to shocking and sad moments that audibly reverberate around the audience, all within the duration of only just a few scenes.

“Triple X” comes with a list of warnings; it contains blackouts and the use of herbal cigarettes, but also frequent strong language, nudity, adult themes including domestic violence and references to suicide, drug use, sexual references and sex scenes. And the production’s Intimacy and Fight Director Nigel Poulton’s hand hoovers over many sections. Under Paige Rattray’s direction, however, things never sit too long in the story’s trauma. Rather, the thematic focuses are balanced and the audience is left with a lasting message of the importance of focussing on hope, although the work does include transphobic language and acts of violence that may be triggering for some audience members.

“Triple X” may be severe in some of its themes, but it is also a dynamic and hysterically funny story, meaning that its 2 hours and 30 minutes’ duration (including a 20-minute interval) seems to fly by in what feels like the shortest of time. Its honest commentary on the complicated issues of gender and sexuality may initially appear to make it a show not for the light-hearted, however, the spring of its opening night audience to their feet in standing ovation for three curtain calls ongoing even as the house lights came on, shows how it is about so much more than this. Wickedly funny, moving and provocative, this is excellent theatre which appropriately had its opening night audience raving and which theatregoers everywhere should see.

Photos c/o – Brett Boardman

Common people punch

Mouthpiece (Queensland Theatre)

QPAC, The Playhouse

October 31 – November 7

Mouthpiece … it is the name of an artwork by Declan Swan (Jayden Popik in an impressive Queensland Theatre debut), but it also has multiple other meanings within Kieran Hurley’s very clever and often ironic award-winning play of the same name.

‘I wanna live like common people, I wanna do whatever common people do’, Pulp’s lyrics cry out during the pre-show wait for Queensland Theatre’s return to the QPAC stage after an eight-month incubation. The represent a foreshadowing emphasis of the of the dynamic play’s plotline which sees middle-aged playwright Libby (Christen O’Leary) seeking a muse to rejuvenate her career. Appropriate to her profession, the work is meta from its start, in stage setup and dialogue as Libby reminds the audience of the connective, collective experience of theatre and starts upon deconstructing the progress of a play, lecture style. What follows from here is a moving, thought-provoking piece of theatre about storytelling, prompting questions around the appropriateness of reappropriation, artistic responsibility and consideration of if we live stories or just lives.

A simple theme of security is evident from its opening scene which bursts forth with 17-year-old Declan seeing Libby on the edge of the cliff precipice of his safe place of retreat and saving her life. From there we see their initially uncomfortable friendship grow into a championing as Libby finds Declan to be a talented artist and seeks to be his advocate. Its unlikeliness suggests, for a moment, that this is a relationship that just might survive, however, soon their friendship finds itself distanced by the complications that come with the contrasting lives of a depressed, middle-class writer and a teenage boy who comes from the rougher part of town (think Ascot meets Logan, in its Brisbane context). And then Libby becomes creatively re-energised to be the voice of salvation in tell of teenage Declan’s story of poverty and abuse as her new play.

The provocative two hander paces along under Lee Lewis’ nimble direction, but still allows occasion for us to sit within its big ideas. Most notable of these is an early extended monologue from O’Leary as Libby, reflecting about the career trajectory from being a challenging new voice to a no-longer-marketable artist. While it comes across as a socially rehearsed explanation of her journey back to living at home with her mother, glimpses of pathos soon pour out from within her mourn of the end of her career. All is not woeful, however, as rubbing up against its grim subject matter are some very funny moments, often courtesy of Declan’s brutally blunt and explicit observations.

Renée Mulder’s minimal set design of black blocks to act as a variety of locations, supported by projections of key lines of dialogue and some stage directions, allows Popik and O’Leary’s grippingly authentic performances opportunity to impress. O’Leary’s presence onstage is undeniable, however, it is newcomer Popik who packs the biggest punch. He brings some wonderful light and shade to the role of Declan, who is tortured by anger but also vulnerable and loving. It is a bold and powerful performance.

“Mouthpiece” is a must-see piece of theatre. It is the probably the most meta show I have ever seen, especially as an opening night experience. More than just an exploration of the nature and notion of theatre, however, it is also a celebration of the shared emotion of its unique connective experience and, as such, is the perfect mouthpiece for its return to the common people.  

Photos c/o – Stephen Henry

Antigone afresh

Antigone (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

October 26 – November 16

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Sophocles’ Angione is more than two million years old, yet as a story with conflict at its heart, it is still relevant today as Queensland Theatre’s epic season finale, “Antigone”, written by Merlynn Tong, illustrates. While there is a clear 2019 resonance to Antigone’s (Jessica Tovey) passionate activist rebellion and rejection of authority, however, the Greek tragedy is presented not so much as her story as much as that of the new leader of Thebes, Creon (Christen O’Leary). Indeed, while young Antigone is a fierce and powerful female who stands up for her values despite powerful criticism, hers is not the main conflict of this play as her power struggle with Creon morphs into one between Creon and her son Haemon (Kevin Spink), who is engaged to Antigone.

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Having Creon played by a woman breathes new life into the text. Not only is the character transformed from a weary man suffering the burdens of rule to an alert and assertive political powerhouse, but it means that the play is no longer just about a woman challenging the patriarchy. Tong has written an adaptation for modern times in many ways, not just through its feminist representations. “Antigone” leads us to consideration of the parity of sorrow as only those whose lives are given in service of the ruler are worthy of mourning; because Eteocles died that way in a civil war, he is afforded a state funeral and a public display of grief, whereas because his brother Polyneices was killed fighting on the other side in recent hostilities, his body has been left to rot and his soul forbidden to be put to rest. By order of Creon, anyone who honours Polyneices with burial does so on pain of death.

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The grieving, heartbroken Antigone, sister to the dead men (sons of Oedipus and Jocasta) and niece to Creon, is determined to do right by both of her brothers and so the epic argument rages on in realisation of the prophet Tiresias’ (Penny Everingham) foreboding forecast. And as Antigone challenges Thebe’s leader for the right to bury and mourn her dead brother with dignity, the great city of Thebes, as well as a family looks set to be torn apart.

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Rather than a Greek chorus, at the play’s opening, we were presented with one of many operatic musical moments from Shubshri Kandiah (as Antigone’s radiant sister Ismene), which elevates the tragedy’s emotion. Despite a lengthy opening song and monologue from Creon, the show is pretty tight, thanks to the excellence of its cast, as compelling performances cut through the sometimes lengthy monologues to engage the audience.

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Tovey’s Antigone is strong and purposeful… a determined young woman who believes nothing is more important than the debt owed to family and the dead. Spink is also impressive as her ill-fated fiancé Haemon. It is O’Leary, however, who delivers the show’s standout performance. Her scenes of eloquent political oration are riveting in their authenticity down to the nuance of gesture as she channels the confidence, passion and voice modulation of the most purposeful of political speakers. Rather than just conveying stubborn calculation, she infuses the character with a vulnerability the elicits our empathy.

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Staging is deceptively simple but effective, as Queensland Theatre continues to show audiences new ways in which the Bille Brown Theatre space can be used. Ben Hughes’s rich lighting design befits the story’s big theme and Tony Brumpton’s sound design assists in amplifying the drama. And costumes are creatively detailed, but, like other creative aspects, allow performances rooms to resonate at the forefront of the production’s impression.

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“Antigone” is a strong show, but its’ short and sweet 70 minutes’ duration, leaves some characters unexplored. Still, Tong has done an admirable job of not only refreshing the story while remaining true to the original text, but making it accessible to people who are not necessarily familiar with the classic. Under Travis Dowling’s direction, the story is clear and easy to follow with no prior knowledge of Sophocles’ play, though, of course, familiarity does allow for the fostering of deeper connections. The show’s traditional touch stands it in impressive stead; it is full of drama as all the best theatre should be.

Oh what a riotous night

Twelfth Night (Queensland Theatre)

QPAC, The Playhouse

April 28 – May 19

“Twelfth Night” opens with one of Shakespeare’s most resonate quotes; ‘if music be the food of love play on’ Duke Orsino of Illyria commands. It is a festive sentiment so apt that it is appears more than once in what is Shakespeare’s most musical play. It is appropriate then for tunes be added to the Bard’s lyrics by music legend Tim Finn, as is the case with Queensland Theatre’s realisation of the Shakespearean comedy.

The melancholic nature of Shakespeare suits Finn’s style and with Sam Strong’s direction songs are seamlessly integrated, making it difficult to recall that numbers like ‘Falling in Love’ and ‘Autumn Comedy’ have not always bookended intermission. Although there is affection for music evident throughout, the numbers are not as memorable as those of Finn’s soundtrack to then QTC’s brilliant “Ladies in Black”. Even so, they still add another (mostly delicate) layer to the play, like the fairy lights that twinkle atop the intricate revolving stage centrepiece. Detailed staging also enhances the production in many ways. The revolving stage not only creates nooks and crannies of interest in which its multi-story action takes place, but it allows central showcase of the excellent band of musicians that bring Finn’s compositions to life.

Washed ashore on Illyria and separated from her presumed-dead twin brother Sebastian (Kevin Spink), the gutsy Viola (Jessica Tovey) must learn to survive alone in an exotic foreign country. This means disguising herself as a man and so, as Cesario, she gets a job with Duke Orsino (Jason Klarwein) who has decided he is love with Countess Olivia (Liz Buchanan). Unfortunately, Olivia is more interested in mourning recent family deaths than responding to suitors, so Orsino sends Cesario to mediate. The problem is that the Viola he knows as Cesario has fallen in love with the Duke. And all the while there is an ensemble entourage watching on in amusement, providing much of the play’s humour in their drinking, joking, singing and torment.

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“Twelfth Night” is a story about the thrill of falling in love, but also of growing old and showing mortality. Indeed, there is some darkness in its focus of characters left behind and mistreated, through concentration in this realisation appears to be more on laughs and silliness. One of the maligned characters is Oliva’s vain and pompous steward, Malvolio, or in this case, a more comic than tragic, Malvolia, in cross-gendered play by the acclaimed Christen O’Leary. When several characters concoct a plan to make Malvolia believe Olivia returns her love, O’Leary is hilarious as she struts about with strange plastered smile (mistakenly believing that this is Olivia’s desire) and then even better in an Act Two reveal of her cross-gartered yellow stockings in ‘Lady Ho Ho’, the show’s musical and comic highlight.

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The play showcases much humour of the Shakespeare sort; “Twelfth Night” was the last true comedy that the bard wrote so it represents a refinement of the cross-dressing et al comic conventions that that personify his more light-hearted fare. There is mistaken identity, cross dressing caused awkwardness when Viola (as Cesario) is instructed to bathe Orsino, baudy jokes courtesy of the always-excellent Bryan Probets as Sir Toby Belch and eavesdropping whilst remaining hidden like in “Much Ado About Nothing”.

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A clear energy all around makes for a show of much colour and movement. Jessica Tovey is a spirited but sincere Viola and Liz Buchanan infuses the wealthy countess Olivia’s mourning with lightness.  Perhaps the biggest standout, however, is Sandro Colarelli as Feste, Olivia’s jester servant. Although he is labelled as a fool in which Lady Olivia’s father took much delight, he is as much melancholy as comic as he uses his wisdom to awaken others. And vocally, he makes his musical numbers into sublime aural experiences.

The melan-comedy world of “Twelfth Night” has always been a merry, mixed-up realm of sex, love and gender games. It is a funny and melancholy place, but a complicated one thanks to its multi-storylines, which makes for a lengthy show duration. Still Queensland Theatre audience members do not seem to mind, rather having a ball with its musical interludes and riotous, farcical disorder.

Behind the scenes satisfaction

Scenes from a Marriage (Queensland Theatre)

QPAC, The Playhouse

November 11 – December 3

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Marianne (Marta Dusseldorp) and Johan (Ben Winspear) are cosy in the comfort of their overly-scheduled, boring bourgeois lives … well that’s what they tell a magazine interviewer when being asked about their union. But what lies behind their façade and how long will it be before their imperfect love begins to dissolve? These are the initial questions at the core of “Scenes from a Marriage”, and the answers, as they unravel, are far from comforting.

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Originally a 1970s Swedish television series by accomplished and influential filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, “Scenes from a Marriage” is a beast of a play. The stage adaptation by Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith takes audiences behind the scenes into the intimacy of a marriage as it tries to survive secrets and suffering in the shadow of a single event and over-time, innate animosity. With a focus on domestic relationships, it has all the emotional and cognitive ingredients for audience engagement. Yet despite being a polished and visually stunning production with a first-rate cast, its resonance is more satisfaction in a neutrally-beige type way, than standout amongst a sensational season of shows.

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Even to those unfamiliar with the nuance of its Swedish creator, the production is noticeably Bergman. Staging screams Scandinavian in its simplicity, functionality and minimalism, opening as it does to a clinically white and sparely-furnished room. Even when, late in Act One, things open up to the reveal the reality of the couple’s conjoined life in a scene in the their holiday home, it is one of timbre tones affront a tree-lined lake backdrop. The aesthetics are quite stunning, enhanced by lighting that adds a theatricality to the sometimes shocking action on-stage.

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The authentic anatomy of a marital breakdown also comes courtesy of well-crafted dialogue that takes audience members from the light relief of predictable jokes through the devastating dynamics of divorce (and what comes next) and contemplation of if whether dislike is better than indifference.

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Real-life husband and wife Ben Winspear and Marta Dusseldorp are excellent in their respective roles, presenting the couple as two individual and complexly layered individuals. Their chemistry is clear… unsettlingly so in a physical fight sequence in one of the play’s uncomfortable scenes. Winspear’s glib Johan, shallowly self-assured and overconfidently narcissistic, allows Dusseldorp’s intense and ultimately vulnerable performance to take centre stage. And they are both well-supported by superb performances from Hugh Parker and Christen O’Leary as the couple’s mutually, mercilessly bitter, married friends.

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For most of the story, Marianne and Johan are unlikeable people curiously drawn to the mutual misery of their marriage, yet there are also sometimes glimpses of them as ordinary, suffering humans who love each other in their own way…. necessary for audience empathy and investment in their story. Like so often in life, there is no happy ending to “Scenes from a Marriage”, but its experience brings a satisfaction of sorts from the confrontation of its truth.

Photos c/o – Rob Maccoll