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.

Copros, classics and close-to-home tales

The Queensland Theatre Company has announced its 2016 season, the last programmed by outgoing Artistic Director Wesley Enoch who is departing the company to take up the role of Sydney Festival Director for the 2017 – 2019 Festivals. As Enoch noted at the season launch, “we make theatre because we like to tell stories.” And what a bunch of stories he has left as the final component of his legacy… diverse stories of ambition, achievement and bravery.

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The highlight, coming early in the year is “The Secret River” adaptation of Kate Grenville’s multi-award-winning bestselling novel that tells of the bloody beginnings of colonial Australia, when pardoned convicts clashed with the traditional owners of the land they settled along the banks of the Hawkesbury River. Coming off the back of this year’s lavish ABC miniseries and previous Sydney season, the Sydney Theatre Company co-production is sure to be a powerful, epic (featuring 22 actors on stage) experience of a work that will surely settle into the Australian theatrical cannon.

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The provocative themes will continue in October’s “Disgraced” a co-production with the Melbourne Theatre Company of Ayad Akhtar’s debut 2012 play and winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The stirring drama promises to challenge notions of Islamophobia and terrorism through its intimate, intellectual Manhattan dinner party setting, (like “God of Carnage” with politics and sans the catalyst children perhaps).

disgracedSimilarly small in scale, will be “Switzerland”, in which Andrea Moor presents a thrilling re-imagining of the last days of crime novelist Patrica Highsmith (author of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and other twisted tales).

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At the other end of the serious scale is the bright and bold “Bastard Territory”, a co-production with Perth’s Black Swan Theatre Company about the 1960s and ‘70s bohemian lifestyle of far northern Australia and the Pacific Islands residents. With soundtrack boasting Shirley Bassey and Suzi Q, it promises to be quite the weird and wonderful ride when it features at the Bille Brown Studio as a Season 2016 Add On.

A comedy of the more classic kind will be Moliere’s “Tartuffe” (starring Darren Gilshenan who was last year seen in “Mother and Son”), a co-production with Western Australia’s Black Swan Theatre Company. The story of the titular brazen conman may have first been performed in the 17th century but promises to be sinfully brilliant and perhaps surprisingly still relevant in its attack on religious hypocrisy and fanaticism.

The season opener at The Playhouse, “Quartet”, Directed by Andrea Moor, also promises to be devilishly funny as it journeys into old age with four feisty ageing opera singers who, having fallen upon hard times, find themselves trying to come to terms with life in a retirement home by headlining a convert to mark composer Verdi’s birthday.

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Fun too, will be the bantering, bickering Beatrice and Benedick, when Director Jason Karwein brings to life the classic romantic sparring of “Much Ado About Nothing”, one of the Bard’s most accessible and enjoyable comic works, when Shakespeare was ‘on his zing’, we are told at the launch. And as the prototypical but also terribly modern rom-com couple: squabbling like children until they realise they’re actually in love and fall into each other’s arms, Hugh Parker and Christen O’Leary promise to make love quite the battlefield. The addition of Ellen Bailey and Tama Maheson in paring as the more traditional Hero/Claudio couple is only added bonus, coming as they both are from some outstanding 2015 Brisbane Powerhouse performances.

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Indeed, it is wonderful to see so much local talent featuring within the season. And also that it will once again feature shows true to the Brisbane experience, whether it be from across the world or around the corner. Brisbane playwright, David Burton’s new work, “St Mary’s in Exile”, to be directed by Jason Klarwein, is one of those stories that would be beyond belief if it wasn’t true, telling the tale of how, in 2009, Brisbane’s Catholic community was rocked when the Catholic Church stepped in to oust beloved priest Father Peter Kennedy from his post at St Mary’s in South Brisbane.

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Motherland” is back too, moving from Metro Arts to QTC’s Bille Brown Studio, for a return season in April. This historical drama by local playwright Katherine Lyall-Watson was a 2014 highlight, telling with delicious language a trio of somewhat true stories: of Brisbane-born Nell who has travelled the world before marrying the Russian Prime Minister and helping him flee the Nazis in World War II, writer and academic Nina who quits her native Russia for Paris, only to return in her twilight years, and single mother Alyona, a Russian museum curator whisked away to Brisbane by an Australian businessman, in search of a brighter future. Both epic and intimate in its sweeping tales of different women from different times, united in the heartache of exile from their homelands, it will take audiences from the chaos of a Russian military coup, through the hell of Nazi-occupied France to a turbulent Brisbane in the throes of the Fitzgerald Inquiry.

And The Dead Puppets Society is also returning, this time for World Premiere of “The Wider Earth”, featuring local talents including Thomas Larkin and Margi Brown Ash, as well as a bevy of astonishing puppets breathing life into creatures great and small. It promises to be an extravagantly beautiful recount of the tale of scientific visionary Charles Darwin’s voyage on the HMS Beagle in The Wider Earth.

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With its mix of classic and contemporary works, whimsical trips to the happiest of theatrical places and contemplation of differing opinions, the 2016 season promises to be all sorts of engagement. 3, 5 and 8 Play Packages are available now. Though if you are feeling adventurous, you could always all in to purchase the ultimate 10 Play Package!

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Let’s talk about sex

Awkward Conversation

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

November 18 – November 29

Whereas week one of Awkward Conversation had family as an organising centre, Week Two saw the focus move to sex… well gender to be precise. And it is no more finely seen than in David Burton and Claire Christian’s work “The C Word” about the f word… feminism. Though this is a predominantly static work, it is filled with fabulous lines of wit and wisdom from the women who take the stage. Under Todd Macdonald’s direction, they are feisty in their frankness as they tell of Cleopatra, Beyonce and Julia Gillard and that misogyny speech (passionately shared to the injections of audience applause). Nobody performs teenager as well as Emily Burton and her delivery of a speech about feminism to her class is a show highlight that will have you hoping for more.

Notions of gender as also central to the wicked game that is “Salome”. Salacious in its lustful provocation of red and black, satin and lace, and full frontal nudity, it is derivative of other works from director Steven Mitchell Wright so not entirely shocking. “Salome” was written by Oscar Wilde in 1871 while imprisoned for crimes of sexuality, but things have changed, we are told; we live in the suburbs now. And what a strange mixed up suburbia it is.

Suburban horror also drives Martin Crimp’s “Fewer Emergencies”. Under the direction of Lucas Stibbard, this largely talky work evokes some strange visuals, but is particularly interesting in how it begins with narrators interjecting from within the audience before making their way to the stage to take the audience through a loosely connected series of violent events, even sharing a song to shatter illusions of fatherhood.

Music features strongly in Daniel Keene’s “The River”, the story of a down-and-out dad attempting to reconnect with his son. The protagonist is essentially an unlikeable character with little backstory to engender audience empathy, however, it is a testament to Ron Kelly’s skill in inhabiting the role of wayward, drunken father. Surely the work contains many life lessons and analogies, however, the most memorable aspects are its aesthetics with live music and some sublime lighting that sees the stage bathed in blue during a journey though “The Boys Light Up.”

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Together with Week One’s offerings, “Awkward Conversation” serves up exactly that – some discomfort, some interest and a whole lot to take away and talk about. This is part of the reason why collaborations can be so exciting, for collaboration allows fission as much as fusion. The juxtaposition of ideas offers different perspectives and opportunities for a contemplative conversation.

Boys will be boys

Hedonism’s Second Album (La Boite Indie, David Burton & Claire Christian)

The Loft

August 13 – 30

Having found fame and fortune, Brisbane-based band, Hedonism is now faced with the anticipation of second album syndrome. After a decade together rocking the pub circuit, the band has become family, but as they meet in a suburban recording studio, it is soon clear that it is a family that is falling apart, with things culminating in a hedonistic weekend bender of booze, bikies, girls and an Australia Zoo wombat. With a media scandal ensuing, it is up to hot—shot, feisty-female producer Phil to get the album (and thus the band) back on track.

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As much as the boys’ behaviour lives up to the Rock n Roll lifestyle cliché, “Hedonism’s Second Album” is about so much more than just this. Rather, it is the story of a group of mates trying to steer their collective course through some testing times, struggling with their own demons. The vocab used by the boys is frequently crude and offensive (second only to “A Clockwork Orange” as a sweary stage experience for me), however, probably accurately reflects a younger person’s vernacular and the changing nature of linguistic acceptability. And there is more to David Burton and Claire Christian’s script than just this. Much of the show’s rapid-delivery dialogue relies on sardonic humour, yet is also contains a number of well-scripted conversations and even some touching monologues to bring out the nuances of character.

And there are certainly some characters within the group – from gay bass player Michael (Patrick Dwyer) to party-hard drummer Sumo (Nicholas Gell). In terms of performances, the standout comes not from Thomas Hutchins as newly-clean front-man Gareth, but Gell as Sumo, a man who is abrasive and loud, but also lost in the ruin of himself and his experiences of always being dismissed by the others. If a playwright’s job is to pierce the clouds that obscure human behaviour, then Burton and Christian have done their job well.

One of the most appealing elements of Burton and Christian’s writing is that it deals with people with whom we can probably all identify and that their stories are set within an equally easily identifiable local setting. Like their “Brisbane(A Doing Word)”, “Hedonism’s Second Album” includes a number of geographic references, from explanation of the origins of Boundary Road, to a sly dig at skinny-jean-wearing Melbournians.

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Far from traditional theatre, as a tale of men struggling in search of their identity, “Hedonism’s Second Album” is a welcome addition to Brisbane’s cruisy arts scene. Apart from some distracting pseudo-fighting mis-hits, it is an enjoyable, lively show; the writing is witting and the performances are all assured.

And the word is good

Brisbane (a doing word) (Vena Cava Productions)

Judith Wright Centre, The Shopfront

March 20 – 22

It is perhaps fitting that in its 18th year, Vena Cava Productions has begun its season by spreading its wings and moving out of home to the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts’ for their first 2014 mainstage production. And there is possibility no better space from which to share the story of “Brisbane (a doing word)” than the Judy’s gritty Shopfront. Intimate and full of character, the space allows for appreciation of the small details of staging and emphasises the nature of theatre as living art, punctuated by the sounds of the show’s namesake city shouting outside.

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Determined contemporary theatre-maker and standup comic Matty is always unhappy; he wants to be held in a regard he hasn’t yet earned and everything he does in drenched in effort. He is starting to believe what they say about his town. Like the eponymous Johnno of David Malouf’s seminal Brisbane story, he represents an essentially unlikeable character we will all have met at some stage in our lives. And he is played with glorious gusto by Patrick Hayes, who captures the contrasts of this indignant but vulnerable protagonist, torn between staying true to his artistic passion and heeding the advice of his peers. Through his psychologist-in-training boyfriend’s (Greg Mackenzie) suggestion of  therapy and his engineering roommate Lara’s (Lia Stark) pressure for him to get a real job and start paying his dues to society, “Brisbane (a doing word)” also provides interesting, universal insights to relationships and personal development, beyond the realm of its university student characters.

Much as this is Matty’s story, it is also a play about a city. “I am this town,” he proclaims. And the sense of place and environment are palpable throughout the piece, not just through mentions of QTC or the Paddo Tavern, or inclusion of obligatory Campbell Newman funding cut jabs, but by its characters’ questioning of Brisbane’s regard as a cultural wasteland. This is one of the show’s most appealing aspects as it explores the impact of this assumption on a personal and creative level and in doing so, confronts the audience with their own contemplation.

Language connects us not only to people but to place, in the sense of both time and location and writer David Burton captures this essence in the work. Although sometimes colourful in language, the show is often furiously funny, with scenes scaffolded by segments of Matty’s standup comedy (‘gross out comedy, that’s his thing’), but also brutally honest in its character analysis and pathos (as he emphatically admits to just wanting to be liked). From a script enigmatically described as being “simultaneously painfully demanding and excruciatingly vague”, director Clair Christian has brought Burton’s words to life in a way that is interesting (including through use of multimedia, hashtag montage clips and memorable music), intellectual (with references such as Virginia Woolf and Oscar Wilde) and very funny, as it captures the self-indulgent angst of a typical university experience with lines such as “whatever is popular is wrong”.

“Brisbane (a doing word)” is a show with plenty of truth, heart and humour.  And it is of much appeal as it simultaneously allows those at university to reflect on their reality, while indulging those who have been there and done that with the opportunity to reflect nostalgically on their days of Doc Martins and cask wine. It is not only a good play, but a necessary one for anyone who has ever been confused about whether they love or hate their city, or themselves. And it a superb showcase of the best of Brisbane student theatre and the passion of the theatremakers who make an invaluable contribution to the cultural life of our city.  If Brisbane is a doing word, then the word is good and the show deserves to be seen as evidence of all there is to celebrate and cherish within Brisbane’s theatre culture. By playing it too safe and not supporting productions such as this, there is a real possibility that we may destroy theatre’s many possible futures, before they are able to take flight.

Staged sci-fi

Orbit (Queensland Theatre Company and Grin and Tonic Theatre Troupe)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

28 June – 6 July

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Youth theatre can be haphazard, as any Fringe festivilliany will reveal. Thankfully, Queensland Theatre Company’s Senior Youth Ensemble’s “Orbit” is definitely more hit than miss, thanks to its sci-fi themes, laugh out loud comedy courtesy of writer David Burton, and some entertaining performances.

Twenty teenagers are vying to be selected to carry on humanity’s future on Mars. The process involves them competing through a series of gruelling tests, while they grapple with the moral dilemmas of rivalry; it’s like Hunger Games with less murder. The production, a collaboration with Grin and Tonic Theatre Troupe, is complemented by its integration of bold multi-media and ‘advertising,’ provoking consideration of the consumerism themes that typify so many traditional dystopian texts. (I’m thinking “Brave New World” here.)

The production makes good use of the Bille Brown Studio space and the cast does a decent job. Much of the humour is derived from the juxtaposition of the over-the-top and deadpan delivery of dialogue, each in keeping with their respective character stereotypes. There are standout performances of course; however, these are initially concealed by the sheer size of the cast. Indeed, early scenes in which all characters are lined across the stage volleying dialogue at the audience make it difficult to know where or on whom to focus, although this confusion is soon settled.

For an inexpensive, enjoyable theatre outing, this is definitely worth a look.