Moor makeover

Othello (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

September 10 – October 1

“Othello” has long been one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays given its question of beliefs around race and gender as part of its poignant commentary on the universality of the human condition. But with its challenges comes great potential, and it is a potential well and truly realised in Queensland Theatre’s outstanding production of the classic as part of the 2022 Brisbane Festival program. The company’s first production of the tragedy (which premiered in Cairns in 2021 after the COVID- cancellation of its intended 2020 Brisbane season) is an electric adaption that approaches the Shakespearean story from a uniquely-Queensland perspective, as Jimi Bani and Jason Klarwein inject some Australian and Torres Strait Islander culture in a powerful tri-lingual (Kala Lagaw Ya, Yumpla Tok and English) tapestry together of the two great storytelling traditions of Shakespeare and Wagadagam.

The complex work follows Othello (Jimi Bani), a Moorish army general who controversially marries Desdemona (Emily Burton), the white daughter of the Senator Brabantio (in this case a wealthy cane farmer played by Eugene Gilfedder) and how his mind is poisoned to the green-eye monster of jealousy over a fictitious affair between his wife and squadron leader Cassio (Benjin Maza), suggested by his manipulative and vengeful ensign Iago (Andrew Buchanan), who is angered by the fact that Othello has promoted Cassio before him. Rather than Renaissance Venice and Cyprus, this “Othello” is set between 1942 Cairns and the Torres Strait Islands in tribute to the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion and the 800 Torres Strait Islander men (including Jimi Bani’s great grandfather, the late Ephraim Bani Snr, and his grandfather, the late Solomon Gela) volunteered to protect the northern tip of Australia during World War II.

The assured storytelling that ensures from this pioneering approach makes the play accessible to all audience members, with Klarwein’s detailed direction positioning the audience to be immediately engaged in its narrative. The classic tale of jealousy, betrayal and revenge is an ultimately brutal story including blatant racism and scenes of domestic violence, yet Klarwein finds comedy in aspects of its telling, particularly in its early scenes as actor gestures and reactions not only bring Shakespeare’s words to life, but enrich them with emphasis of intended and incidental meanings. Iago’s use of mocking language when meeting his wife and Desdemona’s confidant Emelia (Sarah Ogden), not only tells us much their relationship from a gender politics perspective, but gives the audience some easy humour to which it can respond.

While some of the play’s beautiful, eloquent language is given over to levity, such as Othello’s declaration that he will not be destroyed by jealousy “for she had eyes and chose me”, there are still a number of lovely moments in this retelling, thanks to the play’s creatives. Simona Cosentini and Simone Tesorieri’s costume design establishes Desdemona’s purity and innocence and Brady Watkin’s composition and sound design works with Richard Roberts’ set design to create some stunning imagery, such as when the sheer white curtains of the initially humble staging are moved aside to reveal a pool of water that becomes an integral part of scenes such as Othello’s physical response to Iago’s vivid descriptions of Desdemona’s alleged sexual infidelity. Ben Hughes’ lighting design, meanwhile, notably darkens things into the petty villain Iago’s soliloquy revelation of motiveless malignancy, drawing the audience into the character’s outline of his intention to be evened with the allegedly lusty Othello, ‘wife for wife’.  

Buchanan is brilliant as the Machiavellian Iago who drives the plot of the play. He not only regales in conveyance of the villain’s duplicitous nature, but he illustrates the intriguing character’s essential chameleon-ness as he adapts his manner and style of speaking to suit the differing circumstances of audience and purpose, using language to both manipulate others and disguise his true intentions while planting the seeds that grow into Othello’s paranoia. Whether bitterly brooding the emotionally-charged idea that Othello hath leaped into his seat bed and seduced Emilia abroad, alleging loyalty to Othello in assurance of his honesty and reluctance to implicate Desdemona and Cassio, or feigning friendship in counsel to Cassio to seek Desdemona’s help in getting reinstated after dismissal for fighting when drunk on duty, he is marvellous in show of Iago’s multi-faceted manipulations.

Bani, meanwhile, appropriately conveys Othello’s central humanity, which is essential to the play. The titular tragic hero is a meaty physical and emotional role and he fills it with both initial, purposeful authority and the passion of love’s hyperbolic extremes. He easily takes us on journey from powerful and respected Captain of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion through the torment of ‘knowing’ (rather than not) of Desdemona’s disloyalty to dignified but vulnerable comprehension of what he has done. His ‘put out the light’ soliloquy rationalisation of trying to save other men from Desdemona’s supposed infidelity is delivered to an absolutely silent, captivated audience and his final plea to ‘speak of me as… one who loved not wisely but too well,’ is a commanding elevation of one of the play’s most poignant moments.

Buchanan and Bani are as supported by a strong cast of players. Burton is the best she’s ever been as Desdemona. Not only is she passionate in the character’s love for Othello, which assures but also unnerves her husband in water of the seeds of his suspicion, but she strikes the delicate balance required to make the character dutiful, but also of some strength. Ogden is also praiseworthy as her worldlier friend and confidante, Emilia. Together, the duo credibly portrays a genuine friendship with their conversation in Desdemona’s preparation for bed highlighting their shared qualities more than their differences. And Maza’s Cassio is an audience favourite thanks to his cheeky more than courtly demeanour, especially in drunken assurance that he can stand and speak well enough.

Masterful handling of the story’s tragic twists and turns make experience of this “Othello” seem like less that its 2 hours 40-minute running time (including interval). Its weave together of Kala Lagaw Ya (one of the language of the Torres Strait), Youmpla Tok (Torres Strait Creole) and Shakespearean English is seamless. Meaning is never lost in transitions as each language is used to distinct effect, for example when flirty exchanges occur between Cassio and Bianca (Tia-Shonte Southwood) to both add some tonal levity and setup the scenario of Desdemona’s symbolic love token appearing in Cassio’s hands as the ocular proof evidence (in this case a gift from elders to Othello’s mother) of her supposed betrayal.

While its still-startling conclusion has been changed slightly, this “Othello” shows how many of the story’s themes around gender, difference, jealousy, ambition and love are still relevant today. And the reactions of those audience members new to the story serve as testament to the power of its retelling. It may have taken 52 years for the tale of Shakespeare’s Moor to make its way to the Queensland Theatre stage, but with a resounding opening night standing ovation through four curtain calls, it is clear that it has definitely been worth the wait.

Photos c/o – Brett Boardman

Collective Conviction

Conviction (The Hive Collective)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

March 17 – 27

There’s something exciting about standing at the brave new world of the start of story we are told during Zoey Dawson’s “Conviction”, the final in new company The Hive Collective’s trilogy of works at Metro Arts. The truth of the statement is clear from the very start of the thematically rich and clever piece of independent theatre. It’s morning as a young woman, Lillian (Emily Burton) describes the surroundings of what we later know is her messy lounge room in Brunswick East, where she intends to write a play – an important play, an instant classic, a story that matters.

Before this, we are given an explanation of need for risk-taking to get started writing, especially when your all day can be so easily filled with distractions. As performers (Burton and Luisa Prosser, Kevin Spink and Jeremiah Wray) list through almost overlapping thoughts it’s difficult to determine their interrelationships and discovering them in forthcoming scenes becomes part of the show’s ongoing joy as the ideas interestingly blur the outlines of each section in a way that makes them easier to sink into. Indeed, it’s a clever device that threads all sections together allowing for an added depth to audience appreciation.

The divisive potential of this unconventional work is realised from its very first scene of the four performers standing on stage in darkness. This is also the initial of many times when Anna Whitaker’s sound design and Christine Felmingham’s lighting design serve as production standouts, especially in support of scene transitions. Quite different to the Collective’s earlier works, “Conviction” is risky in its dramatic structure. It’s clearly the most unconventional of three, not so set in Greek mythology, but still, like “The Bull, The Moon and the Coronet of Stars” and “Elektra/Orestes” very dynamic, thanks to Kate Wild’s sharp direction. On the way to this, however, things get quite odd and also dark at times in its dense but taut approximately 70-minutes duration.

True to its absurdist meta-theatre black comedy promise, the non-linear story goes first to colonial Australian, or farce thereof given the intentionally contrived representational character realisations. With the writer’s convict drama unravelling, all is not as it seems and not just because of its jarringly progressive and self-aware strong female protagonist who is conscious in her rejection of old fashioned cis gendered male sentiments of supremacy around women.

Aware of the big issues beyond her own story, Lillian is sympathetic to the plight of the first peoples and eager to see their stories told and all types of things that challenge our conception of historical drama. And it is here in mockery of the Australian canon (and the playwright’s own artistic ambition), where each cast member is at their deliberately melodramatic best, especially Burton who hits every note needed for maximum comic effect as the convict plot line unravels us deeper into the psyche of the playwright.

This is the strongest of sections which then shift us back to the mundane of the flat in which her partner returns from his day’s work to discover and discuss how she has spent her time and then the harsh dystopian conclusion of confronting imagery that also stems from Lillian’s writer brain, in contemplation of the journey a writer goes on trying to express themselves and what can work against it.

Things pace along perfectly until the final section of what could easily have been overly self-indulgent work about what being ‘just’ a writer means, the process of writing and the self-doubt that characterises a lack of conviction. Besides this interrogation of the creative process, “Conviction” is also about the darkness and light within us all, however, any universal themes are burdened by its daring, experimental style of independent theatre that may be challenging to audience members with preference for clearer narratives the experience of which requires less effort.

As the rollercoaster work crescendos to its conclusion, a voice over shares the creator’s hope that it all makes sense and that we understand everything exactly the way we are meant to. Clearly, The Hive Collective creatives are confident storytellers, especially in exploration of themes around the social inequality of the sexes and Brisbane audience can now only anticipate what the company might bring us next.

Photos – c/o Stephen Henry

Back with bite

Naked & Screaming

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

February 6 – 28

“You’re doing really well… I love you so much,” Simon tells his partner Emily as “Naked & Screaming” opens to a familiar birth scene scenario, apparently full of irony given the story that will unfold in the following 80 minutes of the show that marks La Boite Theatre’s return. Naked and Screaming may well describe how their baby Dylan has entered the world, but it also is a fitting account of how new parents Emily (Emily Burton) and Simon (Jackson McGovern) end up experiencing their first year of parenthood, emotionally exposed and silently screaming for help as their frank and difficult conversations about the imbalance of their new roles and the consequences of failing to meet expectations transform into the misfortune that can evolve from the share of the thoughts usually kept buried down deep.

The world premiere of the new Australian family tragedy from award-winning playwright Mark Rogers features dynamic direction by Sanja Simic, starting snappily with a quick move from Emily’s labour to the couple leaving hospital and facing the reality of responsibilities beyond. These early scenes are very funny in the hyperbolic familiarity of their domesticity and the couple’s clueless interactions with the invisible baby Dylan, even if on opening night, the couple’s volleying dialogue is sometimes lost underneath audience laughter.

Things move fast and as the pair’s passive aggressive erodes to outright snipes at each other, it is clear that the new parents are struggling. When Simon heads overseas on a three-week work trip, we watch left-alone Emily’s frustration initially still through the lens of humour until things shift. The clever script ensures that the laughs subtly recede as it is made clear that the sleep-deprived new mother is barely coping. And then an incident occurs that catalyses an unravelling of the couple’s relationship beyond just their new parent dilemmas about losing a sense of self, into a new realm of mistrust and resentment.

The fact that this is a two-hander means there is nowhere to hide on stage, allowing the audience to fully appreciate the performers’ detailed approaches to the physicality and interaction with their not-really-there baby, which is made all the more impressive by their effortless quick shifts from scene to scene and the associated, contrasting tones and emotions. And while it may take a moment to adjust to the invisibility of baby Dylan, even beyond its practicalities, this is soon understandable as this is a story about the dramatic twists and turns of the couple’s relationship and the raw emotions that these generate.

Staging is also effective in its apparent simplicity. La Boite’s in-the-round stage is one of neutral palettes upon which the chaos of laundry and toys soon paints an identifiable scene, with a giant mobile casting its hand over the domestic setting that set and costume designer Chloe Reeves has created. Ben Hughes’ lighting design works with Guy Webster’s sound design to chronicle passages of time and illuminate the couple’s most honest conversation before darkening their turn towards the worst of human nature. And while the story’s climax may not necessarily be what is anticipated from its enigmatic teaser blurb, it is still emotionally devastating.

While the play’s events occur in a Queensland setting with a scattering of location et al references, the universality of its themes means that its location is of minor significance. Indeed, this is a work that should resonate widely, not only with parents, but with anyone who has navigated the complexity that comes from intimate relationship connections. The fly-on-the-wall audience experience not only makes the dramatic thriller all the more compelling in its honesty, resulting in some audible audiences gasps of sorrow in the searing imagery of its final scene, but it memorably presents its biting commentary of societal expectations, leaving audiences with much to think about after the show’s end.

Photos c/o: Morgan Roberts

Family law and delightful disorder

Single Asian Female (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

February 16 – March 9


‘Single Asian Female’… it’s a clever play-on-movie-title precis for dating profile purposes. Zoe (Michelle Law), however, is so much more than just this descriptor… classical musician, sister and daughter. Like many, her fractured family oscillates between being a constant of disorder and an annoying inconvenience… and this is even without her knowledge of her mother’s secret. This is a simple overview of Michelle Law’s debut play “Single Asian Female”, which ran at La Boite in 2017 before enjoying a sold out season at Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre the following year. And now it is back where it all began for a return Brisbane season and show of how witty writing and on-point performances can contribute to contemporary conversations around the diversity of our country’s communities.


The premise of the work remains the same, the story follows a family of Asian women as they navigate the intricacies of race associated with life in everytown Nambour. It begins with now single-mother Pearl (Hsiao-Liang Tang), owner/manager of the The Golden Phoenix Chinese Restaurant, rejoicing in the finalisation of her divorce with delivery of a table-top karaoke ‘I Will Survive’. Pearl is clearly a strong woman, as are her daughters Zoe and Mei (Courtney Stewart), but also clear is the crossroads of life at which they all now individually find themselves. As an audience, we follow as their futures are thrust upon them, with a lot of heart and humour along the way.


While each woman is on her own journey, there are a lot of holistic themes to the tale that only add to its appeal. Indeed, the play explores generational and cultural gaps in such a relatable way that its heart cannot be denied. Much of the play’s success comes from its ability to find both the honesty and humour in all types of relationships. Even the most exaggerated of characters reveal a truthfulness at the core of their representations, whether the friendships be driven by judgement and passive-aggression, outward hostility and arrogance or say-it-as-it-is support.


Like the supporting players in their lives, the Wong family women have their own idiosyncrasies and insecurities. Instead of being a caricature, as could so easily have been the case, Pearl is portrayed as a proud and loving mother (albeit without a filter), strong, self-sacrificing and generously resilient. And Hsiao-Ling Tang again gives the character strength on show to her family, but also a natural vulnerability in acceptance of the misfortune of her fate.


Although the sisters are more than a decade apart in age, their interplay is engaging in its authenticity, especially when an argument escalates to a no-bold-barred spill of secrets to their mother. Not only is she entertaining in sibling interaction, but Michelle Law plays Zoe’s scene as a nervous blind-dater to awkward comic perfection. And Courtney Steward is consistently strong as younger sibling Mei, a stubborn teenager full of melodramatic angst in response to confused feelings around identity that see her attempting to anglicise herself out of embarrassment about her Chinese family. Patrick Jhanur is solid as a potential nice-guy partner for Zoe and once again Emily Burton creates some of the night’s biggest audience responses through her perfect tone and comic timing as Mei’s quirky, supportive best friend Katie.


As in its debut run, this “Single Asian Female” celebrates its cultural experience with music and laugher along with its heart… a winning combination that features at the core of many of the family stories that resonate the most. And the work is clearly evolving; not only does this run feature some different actors, but more edits and new jokes. And given that its Marie Kondo nod gets one of the night’s biggest laughs, the result is a show that is as delightful and dynamic as ever, tighter than its original incantation, if not quite as freshly vibrant.


“Single Asian Female” not only represents a cultural landmark, but is a vital reminder of how and why we need to see all stories on stage. There is so much nuanced detail, heart and humour to Michelle Law’s script and Claire Christian’s direction that the characters and scenarios are relatable not only to second generation Australians, but to anyone who has grown up in this country. While there are touches of the political within its dialogue, this is not an overtly politicised, but rather, a very human, family story, full of affection for its characters. The result is an immensely watchable show that seems to fly by in the quickest of times, despite the notorious discomfort of the La Boite seating. This is a theatre experience at its easiest, ideal for audience members who may not be regular theatre goers, but will likely fall in love with the characters, their stories and hopefully the event of live theatre in general.

Histrionic history

Elizabeth 1 (Monsters Appear)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

December 1 – 3


Elizabeth 1st, the Virgin Queen is of such infamy that she is recognisable by image alone, so from its pre-show marketing, we know that she is to be the focus of the new one woman show from the award-winning Monsters Appear, “Elizabeth 1”. It’s office setting, complete with bulky desktop computer et al, suggests that this new comedy is not of her era. The setting is, in fact, East Sydney pharmaceuticals circa the late 1990s. Emily Burton is Elizabeth Templeton and this is her tale…. or is it?

The initial loyal pharmaceutical employee’s story is a sad one of ineffectual alarms, missed buses and too-hot coffee as she plays with her pug dog, reads about famous monarchs and looks forward to an after-work Halloween costume party. And Burton is magnificent in her realisation of her flighty character as much as her later transformation into a Queen with the heart and stomach of a king. She glides around the stage in glorious Elizabethan garb and hits every cue with precision in merge with sound and lighting. The stylised result is at once dramatic and memorable, as they accompany the ghost-like vision of the Tudor monarch in take of the audience on a shamelessly theatrical trip inspired by the poems and future visions of Good Queen Bess herself, as well as the words of her famous 1588 Speech to the Troops at Tibury in preparation for the expected invasion by the Spanish Armada.

“Elizabeth 1” has Director Benjamin Schostakowski all over it, from its opening title sequence to blast of a Cutting Crew contemporary soundtrack, but, short as it is on narrative, it feels more experiment than complete work, running significantly shorter that its advertised 60 minute duration. Indeed, while its histrionic tackle of history takes audience members to many different places and periods in the show, in its current form, the journey is more intriguing than engaging.

The excellence of Oedipus

Oedipus Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Queensland Theatre Company)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

May 23 – July 13

I first ‘saw’ Daniel Evans’ “Oedipus Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” at the Queensland Premier’s Drama Award finalist play reading nights last July. It wasn’t my favourite of the finalists, but I could see why it was named as the winner to be staged as part of QTCs 2015 season. And having seen its full realisation on stage, I am spellbound by its blistering brilliance.

Performed by an ensemble of four actors “Oedipus Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” re-imagines the classic Greek tale of Oedipus as a contemporary tragedy told in modern language and transposed to the sleepy suburban cul-de-sacs of modern Australian. As the title suggests, Oedipus himself is long gone (cleverly, we don’t ever encounter him on stage). So the story is told through the eyes of the young people left behind to recount the rumour and gossip of the salacious scandal. For while the story may be old and from a now non-existent culture, it contains many themes that are applicable to our modern world.

kids opening

There is not denying that this is a confronting narrative. Accidently fulfilling prophecy, Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother, thereby causing his family tree to detonate and bringing disaster to his city. But what if Oedipus and his mother wife Jocasta lived next door? This is the question that represents the play’s central premise. And, as one of literature’s oldest family tragedies is mashed with modern mores of a media saturated world, the answer is perhaps not what you might expect, for the end of Oedipus’ story is, in fact, just the beginning.


The tales from the time of the ancient Greeks were either comedy or tragedy by nature. And if any story (ancient or otherwise) is the epitome of tragedy, it is the complex piece of literature that is Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex”. Yet through some masterful writing, Evans infuses the tale with a black humour that transitions it from horrific to hilarious. There is a rapid tempo and texture to the script that is brought to life by Jason Klarwein’s deft direction of the talented cast through their fragmented bystander recounts of the neighbourhood scandal.

As they play an array of characters (to the extent that they are each have their role listed as chorus  1- 4 in the program), there isn’t a single weak link in the show’s incredible line-up of performers. The result is intensive and confronting, but also additive to watch. Toby Martin is powerful in his every incantation and from the moment he reluctantly introduces himself as 13 ¾ year old Chrysippus, Joe Klocek is engaging, cementing himself as a standout talent to be watched, assuming all array of roles with relative ease. Emily Burton is absolutely authentic when in flighty, vacuous housewife mode, however, it is Ellen Bailey, who is the show-stealer, slipping effortless between several different severe characters with uproarious effect. From a mouthy, narcissistic nail technician to a foul-mouthed, footy-watching boofhead, she uses every nuance of voice and body language to share characterisation that has been honed to a fine art.

Although there is little in way of set, the simple, functional and structured Bille Brown Studio space is used to great effect, with design elements merging to create an ultra-stylised vibrancy in juxtaposition to the text’s gritty subject matter. An immense, colourful graffiti mural at the back of the stage not only cements its subterranean setting, but also provides the canvas onto which graphics are projected to assist in unspoken narration of the story’s key plot points for those unfamiliar with its specifics. The urban atmosphere created by the backdrop serves also to emphasise the story’s modern transcendence.


Certainly, it is its relatability that makes “Odepius Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” so confronting, because as accusation is thrust back on the audience in the final moments, the original play’s enduring theme of the flawed nature of humanity, is highlighted. For here is a work that speaks volumes about how we as a society respond to tragedy and, sombrely, about how life ultimately goes on and moves on.

11401324_10153355914213866_682675226894539384_n (1)

“Oedipus Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” is a fast-paced and bold play. It contains high-level coarse language, adult themes and is grotesquely violent, yet, in its at times playful mix of modern and ancient cultural references, it is original and perfectly executed. Indeed, like the doomed Oedipus’ wedding to Jocasta, incest aside, it is quite wonderful, and an excellent addition to the modern theatrical landscape.