Moliere’s modern mark

Tartuffe (Queensland Theatre and Black Swan State Theatre Company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

November 12 – December 4

It has been said that what Shakespeare is to the English, Molière is to the French. And in Justin Fleming’s new version of the French playwright’s “Tartuffe” there are a number of dramatic parallels between the two greats. Shakespeare references appear peppered throughout the text and, although conflict is established early, the titular character does not make appearance on stage until Act Three.

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Ahead of the delayed introduction, there is much talk of Tartuffe, allowing the audience to build up a profile of the character that is far from complementary.  Posing as a spiritual advisor, houseguest Tartuffe (Darren Gilshenan) is selling salvation to successful socialite Orgon (Steve Turner), intent on ruining his lavish life by stealing away with his fortune and his wife Elmire (Alison van Reeken). Orgon’s family can see through the fraudulent opportunist imposter but head of the house Orgon regards the slick swindler as his salivation, to the extent that he and his mother (Jenny Davis) no longer take any action without first consulting him. Orgon even announces that he will marry Tartuffe to his daughter Mariane (Tessa Lind), already engaged to Valère (James Sweeny).

With Mariane distraught at this idea, the family devises a scheme to trap Tartuffe into confessing to Elmire his desire for her, however, all does not go according to plan with Orgon refusing to believe his wife, disinheriting his son (Alex Williams) and signing a deed of gift of all his property to the con-man before things end somewhat abruptly with a deus ex machine sudden surprise solution.

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In its satire of religious hypocrisy, “Tartuffe” is filled with witty dialogue, irony and timeless comedic conventions like overheard conversations. Richard Roberts’ set design not only transposes the 350 year old narrative to the contemporary world but allows for some fabulous French farce exaggerated moments of physical comedy such as attempts to hide behind furniture and furnishing. And the impressive rotating stage allows action to be taken both upstairs and outside to a balcony and patio, which adds interest to what is a lengthy work.

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Most noteworthy, however, is the text itself, which, in keeping with Moliere’s original work, is arranged in rhyming couplets. Although initially sing-songy as matriarch Madame Pernelle begins with an onslaught of insults upon her family, it soon settles to become more easy-on-the-ear in its rhythm, thanks to Fleming’s re-working of the script through use of modern Australian vernacular and clever incorporation of ockerisms within the dialogue. The result is inspired in its irreverence with sayings like ‘shut your crack Dorine’ sitting smoothly alongside more sophisticated language.

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Under the direction of Kate Cherry, there are no weak links in the stellar cast, however, the rhyming couplet dialogue seems to sit most comfortably in the mouths of Jenny Davis and Hugh Parker (as Cleante), especially in Parker’s final incantation as an ABC news reporter exposing Tartuffe’s regard of religion as sport. As the ‘monologue Queen’, family maid Dorine, Emily Weir is hilariously funny, particularly in scenes of interaction with the man of the house. Her often risqué lines are delivered with ocker emphasis of the “Kath and Kim” kind. And even though her over-the-top characterisation sometimes borders on too much of a distraction from her essential verbal and physical comedy, the first hour is riveting because of her presence and the second half suffers in her absence.

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As the self-proclaimed holy man Tartuffe, Gilshenan is transparently insincere and appropriately sleazy more than seductive in his rhetoric as his driving base impulses are laid bare (literally). His embrace of the conniving character’s negative charisma is so convincing that at encore, his curtain call is met with audience boos of the lecherous lascivious liar.

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In its day, “Tartuffe” was a controversial play; when first performed in the 17th century it was damned due to its attack on religious hypocrisy. Yet this production also leaves its mark in reveal of its resonance within a contemporary world in which opinion is currently divided about political salvation or damnation. Its overriding theme of appearance versus reality also resonates on a more intimate level with assertion that those who act only in self-interest should be regarded with suspicion. As the final show of the season, the play is perfectly pitched: light-hearted and not too thinky, but playful and funny to the point of snorts of audience laughter.

Strictly something

Strictly Ballroom (Global Creatures and Bazmark)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

September 9 – October 17

The plot the 1992 Australian film “Strictly Ballroom” is simple; Scott a great young ballroom dancer has grown restless with the expectations of conventional dancing so tries to mix things up with some maverick steps of his own steps, to the horror of the dance commissioners. Shunned by the other dancers (his partner included), he takes to the floor with newcomer to dance, wallflower Fran whose Spanish family teach him how to embrace his passion. This is all against the urging of his family who are keen to foster a new partnership between Scott and the all-star Tina Sparkle to pursue dreams of winning the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Dancing Championship.

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The result of the stage realisation of the film maintains the simplicity of the storyline, but amplifies its aesthetics to create a colourful and energetic musical with more sequins, feathers and diamantés on stage than the eye can appreciate. Add in a glitter ball and sparkling seat covers to divide the audience into respective colour sections of blue, orange, pink or green and you are surely set for a smash hit show, especially given that the production has been brought to the stage by the original creative team behind the film, including director and co-writer Baz Luhrmann and set and costume designer Catherine Martin. Yet, although all the ingredients are evident, there seems to be something strictly missing the inflation of this already-light story.

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The 30+ cast of performers are expert in the gleeful exaggeration required of the show’s ostentatious costuming and choreography. Indeed, its effective direction and conscious irreverence are clear from its initial minutes of the kitschy ‘Heavenly Pineapple’. And, as one would expect from a production with such large cast, its big dance numbers are the highlights, such as when Scott boleros-up in a boisterous Spanish number to signpost Act One’s crescendo into intermission.

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When the film’s classic songs, such as John Paul Young’s ‘Love is in the Air’ feature, they are carried along by their timeless appeal, however, the addition of new songs by artists such as Eddie Perfect and Sia seem to serve only as obviously space fillers to stretch its running time to that more appropriate for a stage musical. Additional to this is the distraction of too many scene changes and often unnecessary staging rotation, which rather than adding interest, ultimately detract from narrative cohesion

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Fans of movie will of course be satisfied, especially in seeing its iconic scenes brought to life, such as a dancing dip in front of neon billboard. And there is certainly no mistaking its Australian setting given its colloquial language, boganism and over-the-top campness, played to extravagant perfection by Sophia Katos as Liz, Scott’s initial despairing dance partner. However, the standout supporting performances come from Scott’s parents; Heather Mitchell is excellent as his tunnel-visioned mother, always appropriately pantomime-like in her performance. And Darren Gilshenan’s Doug Hastings, who comes out of shell as an anti-dance-hero in a flashback, is clearly a crowd favourite. Comparatively as leads, Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos do what is required of them but don’t really exceed expectations.

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“Strictly Ballroom” is hyper-real visual feast, however, putting on the glitz with two-dimensional characters and a paper-thin plot results in inconsistencies when it comes to substance. Still, it is as it promises to be – a colourful kaleidoscope of froth and glittery bubble, worth a visit for those wanting to add some fairy-floss to the musical theatre diet.

Mother and Son 2.2015

Mother & Son (Queensland Theatre Company, Joint Ventures, Lascorp Entertainment & Fractured Limb production)

QPAC, The Playhouse

February 21 – March 15

A sitcom is an extended conversation between writer, director, actors and the audience. If successful, it can go on for years and as QTC’s “Mother & Son” shows, it can transcend medium and context changes. Based on the classic TV series of the same name which ran from 1984 to 1994, the theatrical production successfully captures its original themes and charms, but also incorporates a new, 21st Century view on the trials and tribulations of long-suffering, middle-aged second son Arthur Beare and his overbearing, absent-minded mother Maggie.

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The characters of this “Mother & Son” live in a 2014 world of mobile phones and overseas call centres, which allows for a number of new plot scenarios that elevate the material well beyond a simple of remake of the ABC TV classic. Although it still has the feel of a sitcom, taking the iconic Australian comedy from screen to stage, allows exploration of characters in a way not possible on television, with, for example, Arthur being given a girlfriend, Anita (Rachael Beck), which allows him some sympathy on stage.

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Essentially though, as a family comedy, “Mother & Son” is a show of dysfunctional relationships and emotional sabotage as Arthur attempts to balance his life and his obligations as primary carer to his forgetful mother Maggie, who appears to only have eyes for her philandering son Robert (he’s a dentist you know, albeit a disgraced one). And the show’s naturalistic suburban set certainly suits what is essentially an intimate story.

Veteran Australian actress Noeline Brown is simply wonderful as the spirited Maggie and from the moment the show opens with her atop a ladder in attempt to change a light bulb herself, she easily wins the audience’s hearts. She is, all things considered, perhaps a lot more likeable than the exasperatingly wicked Maggie of Ruth Cracknell’s making. Indeed, Maggie’s character in this play is portrayed more sympathetically than in the television series. But this is part of what makes “Mother & Son” such an appealing, light-hearted show. Rob Carlton makes for an appropriately smarmy favourite son, Robert; sleezy, selfish and entirely self-centred, he is a product of his own success, as much as Maggie’s one-eyed praise, full of smooth talk as tries not to be caught by his wife Liz (Nicki Wendt) for his cheating ways and Wendt certainly offers some great comic moments as his glamorous, feisty wife. Darren Gilshenan, in the role Garry McDonald made famous, holds the show together with a solid performance as the put-upon Arthur.

In addition to its performances, the show is enhanced by its fresh script full of sharp dialogue. Original series creator Geoffrey Atherden has penned the story exclusively for the stage. In updating its realisation of the central mother/son premise, Atherden has included some clever tricks, such as the insertion of Skype communication between Maggie and her grandchildren, seen by the audience on a big screen. Not only does this help progress the story, but it adds some tremendous comedy.

“Mother & Son” is a charming, comfort comedy, rarely seen in these days of cutting edge, challenging theatrical themes. Although it provides many laughs, it is clear that at its core, this is a story of immense heart and its ultimate message is one of positivity, making it a pure pleasure to watch.