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

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‘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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

For Puck’s Sake

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

February 11 – March 7

Arguably Shakespeare’s most popular comedy, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” tells the story of four star-crossed lovers, the coming nuptials of a duke and duchess, a growing feud in the land of the fairies, and the comedic antics of a theatre troupe. Add a magical forest to the mix and you have the makings of a delightful show. But unless you are familiar with the text and eager to see a bold, dark interpretation of the play, this might not be the show for you.

Immediately, it is clear that this is far from a traditional realisation of the classic comedy. Audiences won’t be seeing a forest, for there are no trees. Rather, the detailed set gives the play a new location in a kitschy 1970s suburban home. There are no (visible) magic fairies and while there is a Puck, it is not the mischievous, quick–witted sprite of Shakespeare’s traditional text. Instead, he is reimaged as a disembodied voice Poltergeistically conveyed through a flickering television.

These are daring textual changes, from a Benjamin Schostakowski, a director who has never feared brave choices, for although there is little character development in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and no true protagonist, critics generally point to Puck as the most important character in the play. Puck’s whimsical spirit, magical fancy, fun-loving humour, and lovely, evocative language are lost in his technological reincarnation. And the forest is integral to the story, both in terms of setting and scenes, creating a dark, wild, mysterious atmosphere in which the magical elements of Shakespeare’s plot can be played out; to lose it, denies the play one of the central elements of its fantastical atmosphere.

Surely one of the ambitions of adaptation should be increased accessibility. And while emphasis and pause bring a modern sensibilty to dialogue delivery, this alone, is not enough. The plot is very important in Shakespeare’s comedies given their typical convoluted, twisted and confusing natures. However, having just six actors perform 14 roles, (complete with many a dodgy wig), using the play’s original Elizabethan dialogue, makes for an unclear start, especially to audience members unfamiliar with the play’s multiple plots.

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Many Shakespeare devices are still evident, apothecary intervention, cross dressing and a play within a play and there is much humour in the Act Five realisation of the Pyramus and Thisbe story by the crew of incompetent amateur actors. The Act Three farcical scene of Helena (Emily Burton) chiding Hermia (Kathryn Marquet), and Lysander (Kieran Law) and Demetrius (Pacharo Mzembe) ready to fight one another for Helena’s love, is full of hilarity, but its over-the-top physicality unnecessarily detracts from humour of a script that already includes puns, metaphors, and insults to provoke thoughtful laughter.

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As Helena, Burton bring her role to glorious life, in every aspect, especially through her engaging soliloquies. And Law is an enthusiastic Bottom, inhabiting the physically of his various guises with impressive commitment. Christen O’Leary (initially unrecognisable in tragic wig) is wonderful when as the nymph Titania, but is ultimately underutilised.

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Indeed, on paper, this “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has all the ingredients for success – an accomplished ensemble cast, a talented director and expert sound and lighting designers in Wil Hughes and Jason Glenwright, yet something, it seems it still missing (beyond just Puck). Freaky, funny, chaotic and confusing, this is a dream unlike any other, typical of Schostakowski’s quirky genius and delicious darkness and there are many people who will admire it accordingly. And traditionalist bias aside, this can only be seen as a good thing, for it highlights how Shakespeare’s dramatic poetry still has the power to entertain, move and enthral us in such a variety of ways.