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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All dolled up

A Doll’s House (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

September 6 – 27

Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” is a classic play, telling the story of how protagonist Nora’s seemingly happy marriage and family life becomes complicated by a series of secrets and lies. (Having broken the law by borrowing money, with forged signature and no male guarantor, she lives in fear of her secret being exposed.) And it is a timeless text for a reason.

“I think the best thing for me to say is as little as possible. I want to allow the work that Ibsen, Lallly [Lally Katz, the show’s playwright], the creatives, crew, cast and myself have done to speak for itself,” Director of “A Doll’s House”, Steven Mitchell Wright notes in his program notes. How odd it is, therefore, to then have the experience of the play hijacked by a final feminist manifesto from a modernised Nora, for while this seminal work has a certain contextual specificity, it also has an intrinsic universality. This is what has made it so enduring. So it in entirely unnecessary to sermonise as a lead-in to Nora’s famous door slam.

That aside, the show’s sterling touches are many. Ever the Steven Mitchell Wright show, the exaggerated, gothic-like aesthetic is rich in the opulence of Tim Burton-esque imagery, realised through internationally renowned Dan Potra’s design. The visual aesthetic is quite magnificent in its melodrama. Strung from the ceiling, the stage rotates though the three acts, tightening around the characters as Nora’s secret web of lies unravels their picture perfect lives.

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Victorian in demeanor, the characters are realised in hyper-realism. Hugh Parker is quite beguiling as the domineering, ambitious and moral patriarch Torvald Helmer, as patronising to his wife as the production’s conclusion is to the audience, but very much a product of his time. As his caged hummingbird, no longer singing, Nora (Helen Christinson) is presented as precious and porcelain-like, but broken (much like the three-legged chairs that corner the stage), all dolled up and delicate in her pink doily dresses.

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Chris Beckey as Nils Krogstad, from whom Nora has borrowed the money, is a compelling villain, equal parts cartoonish and evil and his scenes with Cienda McNamara as Nora’s tough, world-wise friend Kristine are appealing in their comfort, despite the lack of eye contact or genuine interaction that characterises virtually all of the show’s dialogue delivery.

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Ibsen’s text is one of the most performed plays in the world (his global popularity, it has been said, is second only to Shakespeare’s). As important as conversations about feminism are, however, “A Doll’s House” is about so much more than this. Despite its focus on Torvald and Nora’s spousal relationship, its themes regarding the loss of identify are relevant to any relationship. Indeed, Ibsen himself didn’t see his play as feminist; he saw it as humanist. He thought every person, man and woman, had a right to be who they wanted to be. Thus, the show should be about universal happiness more than feminist realisation. And to distrust the audience with this, not only undermines the show’s earlier sophistication, but disrespects the intellect of its members.

Connecting the Pale Blue Dots

Pale Blue Dot (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

July 19 – August 9

There are a number of tell-tale symptoms that you may experience if you have been abducted by aliens, many of which are most notable after a night of drinking, the “Pale Blue Dot” pre-show announcement tells the audience. This is exactly why you should purchase anti-abduction insurance, especially if you live in Toowoomba. As the show reveals, the Darling Downs region is a significant destination for our space brothers and experiences an unusually high number of disappearances due to the large amount of granite in the area, which the crafts use for navigation.

16 year old ‘alien freak’ school girl Storm (Ashlee Lollback) knows this all too well. The science nerd loner claims to have been taken from her formal party and transported to Roma. Her domineering German immigrant mother Greta (Caroline Kennison) is determined to claim upon her policy; she knows what she is talking about given that her husband was also ‘taken’ three years ago.

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So what happened to Storm? And how did she wake up in an empty field 200km from home? Enter skeptical insurance fraud investigator Joel Pinkerton (Hugh Parker) who is juggling his case involvement with frustrations closer to home from his wife Holly (Lucy Goleby) and their newborn baby girl.

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Although “Pale Blue Dot” includes a gallery of characters, each wrestling with their own psychological alienations and fear-motivated desire for escape, their realisation (and much of the show’s humour) includes reliance of a number of comfortable stereotypes. Parker gives an understated and engaging performance as Joel, very Colin Firth like in his manner and mannerisms. And Kennison demands audience attention as the fierce and determined Greta, fearful of losing her soon-to-be-adult daughter, both literally and metaphorically. This is a show about relationships, between mother and daughter, husband and wife. However, while there is realism to each coupling’s arguments, the chemistry of affection is sometimes lacking.

“Pale Blue Dot” is a new play by Brisbane actor and playwright Kathryn Marquet, the result of La Boite Theatre’s playwright-in-residence program. More than anything, however, it serves to showcase the work of optikal bloc, whose projections combine with the staging and soundscape to produce a hyper-reality highlight. The minimalist stage is beautifully bathed in the blue hues of Jason Glenwright’s cutting edge lighting design, while the stage itself is dominated by concentric circles of varying depth. Atlhough this design is striking and versatile, the creaking sounds of characters moving about on its levels are initially a little distracting.

“Pale Blue Dot” is a show of both personal dramas and big themes, which is perhaps to its detriment. The jumps back and forth from intergalactic intrigue and conspiracy theories to humans struggling with their insecurities and insignificance confuse its identity and the end result of trying to connect the dots (pun intended) is baffling and unsatisfying.

The play’s title comes from the title of a photograph of planet Earth taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 space probe, from a record distance of six billion kilometres from earth. It shows the Earth as a fraction of a pixel against the vastness of space, emphasising its insignificance in the vast cosmic arena. It is an apt title for a play that has at its core consideration of Arthur C Clarke’s statement that “Two possibilities exist. Either we are alone in the universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”

Regardless of your thoughts on Ufology, however, you don’t have to be a rocket man to get the best view in the universe; as “Pale Blue Dot” concludes, all you have to do is look up at the stars that every person who has ever lived has also looked upon.

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