Dual of Three

Anatomy of a Suicide (BC Productions)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

May 18 – 29

With concurrently played out stories across three generations of mothers and daughters, BC Productions’ “Anatomy of a Suicide” has a lot going on from the very outset of its Brisbane premiere. The locations of its stories, 1973, 1998 and 2033 are oriented by video projections above the expanse of the stage (AV Design by Jeremy Gordon), which allows opportunity to reinforce the motifs of nature that hover across all three stories of the traumatic tale by UK playwright Alice Birch.

The stories play out side-by-side, however, are far from static, switching across stage sections and also interestingly taking some scenes to the theatre’s balcony seating area as, for example, Carol (Elise Greig) surveys trees on property just bought with her husband (Daniel Murphy), unknowing of their symbolism to the generations of family to follow.

It is fragile Carol whose story to which we are first introduced in the three successive two-person scenes that orient the audience as to the character and characters of the work. She appears with barely visible bandaged forearms as the relics of a suicide attempt she keeps insisting to her mild-mannered husband John was an accident. Then there is Anna (Rebecca Alexander) Carol’s free-spirited, heroin-addict grown-up daughter trying to solicit some drugs from a doctor she knows and also a scene with Bonnie (Zoe Houghton), Anna’s guarded grown daughter doctor, stitching the hand the hand of a flirty patient (Jodie Le Vesconte).

From their first introductions, they aren’t all entirely likeable, which is one of the show’s strengths; its characters exist in all their humanity and Birch’s script never shies away from the complexity of its tough topics as we see Carol, Anna and Bonnie experience love, loss, grief, laughter and death.

As each respective woman, in each respective time, occupies her own third of the stage, the dialogue of their short, episodic scenes dances together rhythmically, colliding in synchronisation of key lines to emphasise the commonality of concepts like truth, home and happiness. Indeed, words and images recur as they web together and move in time about the space, often in accompaniment of contrasting action, as the scenes chronicle pivotal and often mundane moments in each of their lives, with Phil Hagstrom’s soundscape bleeding across the action.

Having three scenes volley back and forth makes for hard work for its audience, in initial scenes at least as we attempt to decipher identities and relationships, and appreciate the deliberately placed minor mentions, however, the 10 performers of the show’s cast maintain the demands of its pace and precision as if they are effortless. And movement is effectively blocked to invite the audience in to multi-levelled interrogation of what is owed by each generation, what is passed on, the real costs of mental anguish and consideration of where genetics might end and personal choice begin.

While all cast members give thoughtful performances, appropriately, those of the actors exploring its female characters are particularly strong. Alexander and Houghton bring commanding emotional intensity to their roles. In addition, Vesconte is particularly engaging as fisherwoman Jo, intent on breaking down Bonnie’s emotional barriers. Her intonation and patient comic timing ensures she receives most of the night’s laughs (although there is mental anguish to the simultaneously told stories, there are some moments of humour). And Triona Giles is vibrant as both the young Anna and also her forthright and inquisitive cousin Daisy.

Elise Grieg is magnificent as always. She not only displays a compelling emotional intensity, but with feathered Farrah hair, pussy bow of-the-era dress and beige boots, she very much looks the part of desperate 1970s housewife. Indeed, costumes are excellent across the board in reflecting respective eras and also characters, particularly of the three generations of distressed women.

Under Catrina Hebbard’s careful, taut direction, the stories of “Anatomy of a Suicide” soon find their independent rhythms and things move quickly through its 1 hour 45 minute (no interval) run time towards a resting place of legacy, ensuring that emerging audience questions are answered. Not only does it explore the ideas of family, mental health, love and strong women, but it dually touches on notions like the role of place in identity, giving the show an appeal beyond what may be determined from its confronting title. Accordingly, there was much for audience members to talk with each other about as leaving the New Benner Theatre, as everyone grappled with their impressions of the powerful play. One commonality, however, is its provocation and audience appreciation of the unique opportunity to experience the work, which has only ever previously played in London, New York and Sydney.

Photos c/o – Nick Morrissey 

Magpie masterclass

Magpie (A Playlab, Metro Arts and E.G Production presented in partnership with Brisbane Powerhouse)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

May 29 – Jun 8

According to American novelist Flannery O’Connor, “the beginning of human knowledge is through the senses. This underpinning of human perception is at the core of playwright Elise Greig’s world premiere work “Magpie”; its all-encompassing description offers theatre-goers immersion into the experience of a Brisbane summer, where thunder storms threaten for longer than they onslaught and nothing is as cooling as a lemonade ice-block.

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This is all part of the long-ago identity of the story’s feisty central character, recently fallen from critical favour novelist Mordecai (Barb Lowing). Returning home following her father’s death, she discovers more than just the architectural monstrosities that have now taken over the Poinsettias. Her resulting memories are made more vivid by discovery of a long-forgotten brown-paper covered notebook and through this the story is drawn back to 1961 and her attempted investigation, along with neighbourhood friend Splinter (Michael Mandalios) into her parent’s apparent unhappiness.

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Through the resulting flashbacks we are served glimpses of her fractured and allegedly cursed dysfunctional family and the perpetual arguments of her Romani parents Aggy and Meshack (Kathryn Marquet and Julian Curtis) that caused the teenage Mordecai’s departure. Though its cleverly crafted script, we also discover why she was considered an outsider and nicknamed Magpie, in parallel to the city’s identity search on the cusp of becoming the Brisbane that we now know thanks to the realised promises of Clem Jones as Lord Mayor.

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David Walters’ stylish lighting design works well not only to convey the overwhelm of the city’s oppressive heat but to showcase the contrast of past and present within the same scene. While this is a Brisbane story of Australia’s multi-cultural heritage, however, it is also so much more in its expose of nostalgia and the power of going home to a place that no longer is, to which audience members can apply their own experiences.

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Lowing is a talented actor that you wouldn’t mind seeing in anything and “Magpie” represents a wonderful vehicle for her gifts. She is barely of stage for the show’s duration and presents a powerful performance, not just as the cynical and outwardly robust protagonist, and her seamless jumps between her three-times-married, almost-grandmother and teenage self are seamless. There are no weak links in this cast and together its actors present an effective masterclass in character work. Mandalios’ energy as the tell-it-as-it-is Splinter is infectious; he inhabits the character’s essence entirely, down even to his excited run faster than his body.

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Curtis presents Abby as a proud and passionate rather than just an easy-to anger man and Marquet provides a quiet balance as Mordecai’s mother, burdened with much more than we initially realise. The writing of their migrant observations in particular is quite witty, epitomised in a very funny scene in which Mordecai bring Splinter home to a family dinner, which provides a nice break to the slow-burn dramatic tension of the play’s otherwise dense thematic temperament.

Developed through Playlab’s programs, “Magpie” is a complex work with integral twists and turns to engage the audience for the entirety of its 90-minute duration. More than just a belated coming of age story, it is a moving experience with a poignancy that sneaks up on you as so often happens in reality when dealing with issues of grief. As many great works do, it has much to say about many things, including the power and generational legacy of long-dormant secrets. Indeed, the depth of its themes and craftedness of its script and will surely ensure its longevity.

Photos c/o – Stephen Henry

Poison pair

Poison pairing

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

May 9 – 19

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“Poison” starts slowly. It is an afternoon in autumn in Holland (as we later discover) in a cemetery’s family room. Simple piano sounds sit over a soundscape of rain pouring. Emerging from the shitty weather, a woman reunites with a man who has travelled from France for the occasion. We gather there has been a separation of sorts but thanks to its enigmatic cat-and-mouse dialogue, for a long time we don’t know why they are there or much about the event causing graves to be relocated. Their relationship isn’t confirmed for a long time either, though the formal familiarity of their interaction suggests there is a significant (and fractured) backstory.

Early scenes make the audience work hard. Referring to events obliquely is perhaps more frustrating than intriguing for viewers who want to be taken on a journey, rather than being left to work hard in self-navigation towards realisation of its intended meaning. This is the script’s doing course, but something that is compounded by other early-show vaguery. There are lengthy silences for example, such as when He makes a coffee and we all wait through the discomfort of the silence.

The show is a two-hander, (though a number of other characters are referenced in the work we only ever meet two of them), but it is also work of two halves as, after their relationship and history are confirmed around the 30 minute mark, the second half settles beautifully as the cast of two presents raw, emotional and real drama. There is a staunch realism to the show that comes courtesy of its research into shared experiences of grief. Indeed, there is no neat and happy ending because sometimes things just end. There is, however, an immense sense of satisfaction that comes courtesy of the performances which effectively give the characters their distinctive voices.

The duo, He (Paul Bishop) and She (Elise Greig) aren’t ever named which actually works; their story is bigger than that of their individual selves. And their meditation on grief as being similar in its difference makes for some thought-provoking theatre. Especially as He, Bishop gives a powerful, understated performance that resonates even when his interaction is over the telephone with an unseen character. Greig also gives a potent performance, conveying a strong sense of love despite the difficult moral dilemma and emotional turmoil they are facing.

Lot Vekemans’, “Poison”, speaks about what comes from tragedy so was always going to be a work far from folly. Over its moving 90 minute duration, we see the couple fight, cry, eat cheese and drink wine, but also reminisce, accuse, move forward and move on. And, as such, it stands tall in its sober ending, in contrast to its early real-time communication crawl.

This review is of the preview show of “Poison”.