The delight and unite of theatre

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Theatre-going may beget theatre-going, but the end of year does provide welcome respite to relax and reflect upon the bevy of brilliant shows that Brisbane audiences have be privileged to experience in 2016. As for me, from 150 shows seen, there have been many favourites, including:

  1. The Tragedy of King Richard III (La Boite Theatre Company) – The fast and furious story of rampant revenge that we thought we knew is an evocation of the play, the man and ourselves thanks to the hard questions asked by Daniel Evans and Marcel Dorney.
  1. Disgraced (Queensland Theatre presenting a Melbourne Theatre Company Production) – Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning intense and absorbing drama which fearlessly puts contemporary attitudes towards politics, race and religion under the microscope in exploration of freedom of speech, political correctness and the prejudices towards Islam, even in the most progressive cultural circles.
  1. True West (Brisbane Powerhouse, Troy Armstrong Management, Thomas Larkin and Annette Box) – Sam Shepperd’s modern classic which sees two desert-dwelling brothers go head-to-head, kicking and thrusting towards physical and psychological showdown in desperate pursuit of the American Dream.
  1. The Secret River (Queensland Theatre presenting a Sydney Theatre Company production) – Kate Grenville’s story of two families divided by culture and land on the banks of the frontier Hawkesbury River in the early nineteenth century.
  1. Bastard Territory (Queensland Theatre) – A complex, beautiful story about people that transports audiences back in time to the swinging ‘60s PNG and the bohemian days of 1975 NT, before settling in 2001, as Darwin sits poised for political progress.
  • Best performance – Thomas Larkin as Lee in True West (Brisbane Powerhouse), Ngoc Phan in as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire (La Boite)
  • Best staging – Madama Butterfly (Opera Q)
  • Best lighting – Snow White (La Boite, Brisbane Festival)
  • Best AV – The Wider Earth (Queensland Theatre)
  • Most interesting – Disgraced (Queensland Theatre, QPAC)
  • Best New Work – The Tragedy of King Richard III (La Boite)
  • Best Shakespeare – Twelfth Night (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)
  • Best musical – The Sound of Music (Andrew Lloyd Webber, David Ian, John Frost and The Really Useful Group)
  • Best cabaret – California Crooners Club (Parker + Mr French, Brisbane Festival)
  • Best dance – Huang Up & Kuka (Brisbane Powerhouse, WTF)
  • Funniest – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Lyric Hammersmith and Filter Theatre – UK, Brisbane Festival)
  • Most fun – Titanic The Movie The Play (Act/React, Brisbane Comedy Festival)
  • Most moving – The Secret River (Queensland Theatre)

Although many of my personal highlights have been international acts, often featuring as part of festivals, these cultural feasts have also delivered some excellent locally-themed theatre amid the internationalisation on offer. It is the delight of theatre that events such as these can not only inspire creativity, but also unity in cultural participation. Hopefully 2017 will see more people realising theatre’s accessibility, because it is not about a specialist language or privileged perspective but rather just people telling a story or sharing a way of looking at the world… things that are at the core of our essential humanity.

Perfect Pulitzer provocation

Disgraced (Queensland Theatre presents a Melbourne Theatre Company Production)

QPAC, The Playhouse

October 14 – November 6

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“Disgraced” starts as a sophisticated evening, even down to the pre-show jazzy sounds of Kurt Elling. It befits its setting of a cozy, cocooned New York elite high-life that exists in at least the beginning of this sharply-paced 90 minute, one-act play that won its first-time playwright, novelist and screenwriter Ayad Akhtar the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

On track for partnership in a Jewish law firm, high-flying lawyer Amir Kapoor (Hazem Shammas) lives with his artist wife Emilyh (Matilda-Award winning Libby Munro) in a spacious Upper East Side apartment. As a lapsed Pakistani Muslim, he is critical of Islam, even though his Anglo-American wife champions Islamic achievements in history and uses its motifs in her artwork. Urged by her, he responds to his nephew Abe’s (Kane Felsinger) pressure to support an imam accused of raising money for terrorism, an act that does not come without consequences.

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The fallout occurs at a dinner party that includes initially easy-flowing intellectual small talk until the cardinal rule is broken and over fennel salad, conversation turns to politics and religion, as the couple is joined by Amir’s African American work colleague Jory (Zindzi Okenya) and her Jewish art dealer partner Isaac (Mitchell Butel) who has been inspecting Emily’s work with view to its potential inclusion in a lucrative exhibition.

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Despite beings set in America, “Disgraced” is far from an American play, thanks to Akhtar’s confronting and dramatic yet witty script, which not only creates robust conversations, but simmers tension in the group’s interpersonal dynamics. So crafted is the script that the cleverness of its inter-connectedness of ideas is perhaps best realised after post-viewing contemplation about the similarity of Amir and Isaac, both striving to exist in rebellion to their upbringing, yet returning to the beliefs of their family’s faith in their argument’s full flight.

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In exploration of freedom of speech, political correctness and the prejudice around Islam, “Disgraced” is as contemporary as drama gets. Yet its exploration of identity brings an added relevance through its insight into human nature and the gaps between what we consider as our truth and what we censor to enable our existence in the modern world. And given the crisis of identity upon which our Australian national self is arguably built, there is much to reflect upon in consideration of intrinsic notions of race.

Under Nadia Tass’s direction, a stellar cast makes this confronting contemporary political drama truly absorbing; they all give measured performances of characters that might, in lesser hands have been simple stereotypes and their realisation of the different New York accent details (thanks to voice and dialect coach Suzanne Heywood), for example, add a musicality to the dialogue delivery. Shammas is brilliant as Amir, as he becomes the antithesis of what he has believed himself to be. And his interaction with Okenyo’s spirited Jory, brings incredible realism to their co-worker dynamic.

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In a play about relationships shaped by bigger issues, Munro takes the audience on the biggest journey and she shines in the role, lighting her character’s passion about her artwork from within and rising to the articulate occasion in defence of accusations of her work, influenced by the mosques of Moorish Spain, being orientalist. And her compassionate interactions with Felsinger’s Abe, whose appearances bookend the play, gives her character another appealing dimension and humanity.

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A strong aesthetic creates a powerful performance space. Indeed, the design team has created an atmosphere that doesn’t ever distract from the actors or arguments. Shaun Gurton’s single set stage design is detailed to realistically represent the apartment in which Amir and Emily would live – from its shelves packed with hardcover art and architecture books, the scotch on the sideboard and tagine on a kitchen or butler’s pantry shelf way in the background.

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And staging is well-supported by Russell Goldsmith and Daniel Nixon’s cinematic soundscape of New York noise and a lighting design (courtesy of designer Nigel Levings) whose evocation is most apparent in its stunning conclusion, focusing the audience on a final image of a tragic hero of mythic proportions, undone by equal parts circumstance and his own weakness.

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In the examination of socio-political themes such as Islamophobia and Muslim-American self-identity, “Disgraced” offers much provocation to further discussion of the prejudices towards Islam that exist in even the most enlightened cultural circles and it is easy to appreciate its Pulitzer Prize receipt. It is an exceptional play that serves as an important reminder of why the world needs theatre, brilliantly realised to create an intense and absorbing experience for its audience members.

Photos c/o – Stephen Henry Photography

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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