Williamson wit 101

Emerald City (Queensland Theatre and Melbourne Theatre Company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

February 8 – 29

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The pre-show soundtrack of “Emerald City” features a distinct Australian flavour, appropriate for the Great Southern Land celebration of interstate rivalry, idealism and so much more. Shortly into the Queensland Theatre/Melbourne Theatre Company co-production, it is Noiseworks literally taking us back to the 1980s era of the David Williamson’s finest comedy in which creative couple Colin (Jason Klarwein) and Kate (Nadine Garner) have moved to Sydney in pursuit of further career success. Cue the Sydney vs Melbourne mentions that then proceed to make up majority of early scene dialogue. It is trademark Williamson 101, full of humour and witty social observations.

The 1987 satire about the film and publishing industries in Sydney (the Emerald City of the title) is also about marriage and its strains, especially when it is of two competitive partners trying to find a balance in life. This is Australia of the late 1980s, full of entrepreneurial optimism and materialism that see antihero protagonist Colin teaming with hack writer Mike (Rhys Muldoon) who lacks in talent but not commercial ambition, to work on a pet project.

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Ahead of Act Two’s obvious ‘80s cultural references there are subtle nods to the era through double breasted suits, shoulder pads and pale pastel clothing; a screenplay is completed on a typewriter and first-thing-in-the-morning updates about the news of the world come courtesy of an actual newspaper. Some of its dialogue, however, lands with more of a modern day thud, especially some of the gendered jokes Mike directs towards his significantly younger girlfriend Helen (Megan Hind). But there are also some still hilariously funny one-liners, often from Marg Downey in fine form as the deliciously dry Elaine, Colin’s agent and producer.

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Despite his character’s chauvinistic interactions, Muldoon helps us find a likeability in Mike’s brash insensitivity, before his undermining is fully revealed. Indeed, he seems to be having a great time playing the role of the archetypal Sydney operator. Likewise, Klarwein manages to give talented and celebrated screenwriter Colin an every-man sensibility that adds to the show’s appeal. His performance is a vital one, especially sparkling in his animated imitation of his just-turned-teen daughter’s life dilemmas. Nadine Garner brings a passionate energy to his socially conscious, successful publisher wife Kate, especially in call out of her husband’s integrity in his changed art vs business and money views now that he is experiencing commercial success…. And so we kick into interval to sounds of ‘New Sensation’

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The aesthetic of costumes et al darken as Colin’s world collapses in on itself in Act Two. David Walters lighting design works well with the simple but dynamic staging (Designer Dale Ferguson), allowing much of the action to essentially take place in a glass box, which affords some wonderful mirror imagery and alternative visual perspectives. The backdrop allows us to see Sydney’s new money ‘80s sparkle with the hint of opera house sail curved into the sparking shapes. While in Sydney it is all about the water frontage, (“nobody wastes time debating the meaning of life in Sydney; it’s getting yourself a harbour frontage”), all that glitters is not blue, with Colin soon discovering the green murk beneath its surface, like in its namesake City of Oz tale.

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Under the direction of outgoing Queensland Theatre Artistic Director Sam Strong, this is a sparkling revival of what is clearly an enduring play; while it is an entertaining story, it also still has much to say about human nature and our society. While not ground-breaking in its form, it puts real people and situations on stage, characters that despite the distance of time still possess recognisable human traits, conflicts and unfulfilled dreams. David Williamson has long been a writer of funny smart and popular plays. Given his announcement that, after half a century of writing plays, making him the most produced playwright in the history of Australian theatre, he has written his final drama, this is a production that everyone really should see.

Photos c/o – David Kelly

Sarsaparilla style

The Season at Sarsaparilla

Gardens Theatre

August 8 – 13

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There is a sense of “Cloudstreet” to “The Season at Sarsaparilla”, not just in its descriptor as ‘the great Australian dream realised in sweltering suburbia’ but in the way that, under Jason Klarwein’s direction, the realisation of Patrick White’s 1962 play is staged. The Australian classic, which concerns three households, the Pogsons, the Boyles, and the Knotts, in the fictional suburb of Sarsaparilla, is eloquent and textured in its exploration of the limitations of family and upbringing. The examination of the ordinary lives of the three families within Mildred Street is packed full of rich theatrical fodder; even though its themes befit the now sentimental satire on Australian suburban life, there is also an authenticity to its illustration of the effect of monotonous loneliness and the power of ambition to find contentment and purpose in life.

As our restless-soul, sensitive narrator of sorts, Roy Child (Grady Ferricks-Rosevear) reflects late in Act Two, “you can’t shed your own skin, no matter how it itches.” Indeed, universal themes transcend the play’s era of lino, lamb’s fry, hire purchase and new Mixmaster pride; these are everyday Australians who have worked hard for the post-war suburban dream, even if it comes with entrapment by the mores of the time. But ‘what are you going to do?’ especially as a woman, whose daily activity is restricted to passive aggressive commentary of what is going on in the neighbourhood.

A clear sense of containment is suggested in the sentiment of character dialogue and Roy’s commentary, which is emphasised by Anthony Spinaze’s dynamic set design of three bungalow box houses. The stylised production engenders a sense of voyeurism, although having the majority of the action set back on the stage distances the audience from the intimacy of some of its human stories. Digital projections of diorama recreations of the street’s dwellings add interest and work well to show the passage of time as day drags into night, with Glenn Hughes’ dynamic lighting dramatically signalling thematic moods.

The overlapping lives of the street’s residents present as a series of related sub-plots, however, there is one that drives the action more than others, thanks to some superb performances. Amongst occasional overdone ocker accents and exaggerated enunciation, Nicole Hoskins is a standout as the childless Nola who, despite being married to the good-natured Ernie (a likeable Jack Bannister) is tempted towards an adulterous affair with his larrikin mate Rowley (an appropriately beguiling and swaggersome Will Carseldine), with whom her husband fought in World War Two.

As a cultural artefact, “The Season at Sarsaparilla”, serves as tribute to a time deceptively regarded as simple, but as the QUT BFA (Acting) final-year students, supported by QUT BFA (Technical Production) students, show us, it is also a metaphor for so much more. Like the prolonged vowel-accented drawl of a broad ocker accent of old, the show is a long one and sometimes it feels that way, taking a while to establish households and relationships before getting into the action of the story’s conflict ahead of interval. Still, within this expanse there are many opportunities realised by cast members and creatives alike.

Monumental Miller

Death of a Salesman (Queensland Theatre)

QPAC, The Playhouse

February 9 – March 2

Rightfully regarded as one of the greatest plays of the 20th century, Arthur Miller’s iconic “Death of Salesman” is an unquestionable classic of the theatre, largely due to its enduring resonance, and Queensland Theatre’s production of the mammoth work leaves audiences with little doubt as to why the play remains so beloved, even 70 years (to the week) after it was first performed on Broadway.

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“Death of a Salesman” comes with all the ingredients of a great tragedy. Its narrative follows 63-year-old salesman Willy Loman (Peter Kowitz) as he struggles to accept his failures and wrong dreams. In his earlier life he experienced some level of success, but now he is a broken man, both professionally and personally, plagued by memories of missed opportunities. Long gone are the days of his sons Biff (Thomas Larkin) and Happy’s (Jackson McGovern) hero worship and shared sniggers at the book-smart neighbour boy Bernard (Ilai Swindells) and his knowledgeable and successful father Charley (Charles Allen). Instead, Willy’s twilight-years reality has become one of scheming towards redemption, while relying on Charley’s generosity to only-just survive, but never succeed. It is an unforgiving existence in which Willy also refuses to relinquish his dreams for this eldest son, despite Biff’s rejection.

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There is a lot of pathos to the story’s exploration of big human-nature themes such as pride, guilt and hope and it is very dialogue-heavy in its apparent exploration of Henry David Thoreau’s succinct observation that ‘the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’. Arthur Miller’s script has, at its core, a sensitive craftedness infused with imagery, allegory, multi-level titular meaning and the symbolism of planting seeds to thrive as a legacy.

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The last time I saw this play it was in a cosy Greenside theatre on Royale Terrace at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It was an appropriately intimate experience of a traditional work of realism. While Queensland Theatre have set the story where it should be in the late 1940s time of hats and handkerchiefs as business attire, the realisation is far from one of conventional realism, which works wonders in bleeding Willy’s time into itself.

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The story’s time and place setting is seen in props, costumes and character accents that inhabit Set Designer Richard Roberts’ deconstructed doll-house staging. World class production values bring multifaceted flashbacks and reminiscences to realisation, as for Willy the past is alive. The flashbacks not only provide psychological insight into his character, but add interest as Willy retreats into idyllic family memories and the glories of his venture capitalist brother Ben (Kevin Hides).

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Verity Hampson’s lighting design takes the audience through transitions of the everyday and into memories in emphasis of the gap between myth and reality. Indeed, perfectly executed lighting transitions transform scenes from sepia-toned of-the-time settings to stylised flashbacks behind multi-use scrim screens. Justin Harrison’s soundscape is also quite superb, whether as subtle suburban street sounds or to signpost the assault of a vivid flashback. Even intermission music is of the era, reflecting the attention to detail that is at the core of this show’s success.

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The cast is uniformly excellent as the story’s almost-all flawed characters. The success of any production of “Death of a Salesman” depends ultimately on the portrayal of its lone man protagonist, battling for purpose and recognition and Kowitz is outstanding as the titular merchant, whether full of false pride and delusion, boastfully bravadoing to his boys or submissively stooping towards his mental and emotional decline. It is a slow-burning performance, not pitiful, as it could easily have been, but poignantly honest and therefore emotionally engaging.

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But Willy’s is not the only hero’s journey being examined. Larkin brings a layered sensitivity to the challenging role of Biff, a man with his own yearning to overcome his adversity and live on the land in opposition to his father’s expectations that be also become a businessman. However, the most powerful performance is probably that of Angie Milliken as Linda Lomen, Willy’s emotionally-supportive but worn-down wife, trying desperately to at-once understand and help her doomed husband. Her resolute monologue defense of her husband’s character to their children is moving enough to hold the entire absorbed Playhouse Theatre audience in her grasp. Despite such dramatic moments, however, the production is not all dourness as suggested by its title, with some light moments and comedy serving to alleviate sombre scenes.

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As the company’s Artistic Director Sam Strong notes in the show’s program notes, “Death of a Salesman” speaks across time to the love and lies at the centre of families. And this character universality is at the core of the success of this production. While there is criticism of American capitalism evident, its currency comes more from its every-man human themes of triumphs and disappointments. It is a long show, as classics often are, but this is because it has so much to say, beyond just its portrait of the promise of ‘the west’ and the Great American Dream that appears in so many of its culture’s literary classics.

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Just as Willy believes that success is defined by money and reputation (“the only thing you’ve got in this world is what you can sell,” “be liked and you will never want”, he says), the currency of likeability and stories of self-promotion that form the fabric of his life represent the essence of people’s modern online selves, meaning that in 2019, as much as ever, the play still has much to say about the idea of self-perception. Yet while this theme offers resonance it doesn’t overwhelm the play’s essential story. Jason Klarwein’s direction is one of command, but also restraint, in not trying to force the play to be something it is not. And so, its celebration of the old style magic of theatre makes this monumental first installment in the company’s Season of Dreamers, one to which attention must be paid.

Classic corruption

Hedda (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

November 10 – December 8

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As its title suggests, Queensland Theatre’s “Hedda” is an adaption by Melissa Bubnic of Henrik Ibsen’s Norwegian realist classic “Hedda Gabler”. The original story is of a scheming Hedda, who, just into a marriage of convenience, decides to destroy the life of an old lover back in town, jealous of his love affair with another.

The original story is pretty much still there in this take, although the fresh imagining is outrageously modernised. This is now a tale set on the gaudy Gold Coast of Bundy-and-rum mentality, mangos and so-suburban million-dollar mega-mansions, paid for by meth. And it is far from subtle, saturated with swearing and Queensland boganisms from the very first scene.

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Just as the original play takes place entirely in the Tesman’s living room, “Hedda” plays out completely in the backyard poolside area of Hedda (Danielle Cormack) and George’s (Jason Klarwein) ocean-side mansion. The spare staging provides a blinding white backdrop that both captures the Coast’s ‘cash, splash and trash’ and becomes canvas to the colour of the cashed-up-bogan attire of leopard print and Hawaiian shirts.

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Just back from a cultured honeymoon in Europe, daughter of a decorated war hero, Hedda is not only beautiful, but bored. The university-educated lawyer and privileged southerner is ambitious only in quest to win a state government tender, willing to risk the consequences of an increased profile, which puts her at more than just cultural odds with her new husband’s crime syndicate family, for their construction and security business ventures are but veneers of their core drug interests and corrupt council dealings.

In a storyline that could have been straight out of “Underbelly”, we soon learn that loyalty brings rewards, but also paranoia. Indeed, a lot of time is spend establishing the context of the world and its characters, at the expense perhaps of the blood-soaked tale’s later more gripping human dramas. Still, tensions are evident from early on, despite none of the characters being particularly likeable. (Though performances present them as more than just the sinister characters they could easily have been).

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Klarwein is powerful as the vibrant Jason, fearful of being sidelined in the business by just-out-of-prison Løvborg (Jimi Bani), committed to his family and wanting to both please and control his (initially at least) immature, demanding and self-indulgent wife. This was one of my favourite of his performances; he dominates scenes by his presence, as a man driven by power and pride.

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There are many strong performances from within the deluxe cast. Almost unrecognisable, Andrea Moore is deliciously uncouth as George’s gutter-mouthed Aunt Julia, suspicious of Hedda and her people as one who has never herself been further than Bali, let alone to Europe. Although crass, her observations and insults are witty and clever, however, rapid-fire dialogue means that the plentiful audience laughter is sometimes at the expense of following speech.

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Bridie Carter gives an ultimately emotionally-gripping performance as the vulnerable Thea. Daughter of an unseen crime leader father she lives a quiet life in Byron, recovering from addiction until her violent partner reappears. She makes Thea’s story tragically compelling, however, it still is paled to that of our titular anti-hero.

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While Cormack’s Hedda is certainly enigmatic, she goes from being horribly malicious and manipulative to formidable feminist firecracker so easily that it’s difficult to determine the core of her character. And her claims to have worked too hard to be owned by a man emerges more as a self-serving monologue afterthought than ongoing thematic motivation. Connection with the story is also distanced by too much subtly around her former relationship and the lack of an ongoing sense of her entrapment.

While this Hedda has some agency, she seems to want power for its own sake rather than for a particular purpose. She is unsympathetic, with problems of her own making, however, while she is never really vulnerable, there is still enough of Isben evident to recognise the work’s honour of its origins amongst its powerful, in-your-face contemporary voice. The juxtaposition of these ideas is probably going to polarise people. Many of the Monday night subscription crowd, for example, were not particularly impressed and potential audience members need heed warnings about its strong coarse language, adult themes and graphic imagery, before heading in to form their own opinions.

Jimi joy

My Name is Jimi (Queensland Theatre)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

July 22 – August 13

Jimi Bani is a ‘remote area boy’ from Torres Strait (not PNG or Fiji). His home, Mabuiag Island, has a rich history and culture that Jimi and his family are trying to keep alive amidst the cultural chaos of the changing modern world. And ‘My Name is Jimi’ really is family affair as Jimi performs alongside his son Dmitri, mother Agnes, and grandmother Petharie with his brothers Conwell and Richard Bani.

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As he draws directly on the experiences of his family and their role as leaders of the Wagadagam tribe of Mabuiag Island, through stories span the generations, Bani takes audiences on the most unique and appealing of journeys. Unlike any other theatre experience (#inagoodway), the show at once celebrates the legacy of Jimi’s father, an honoured chief, and promotes the need for preservation of cultural and family history.

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The show is full of eclectic, but important little details, meaning that there’s plenty on offer to audience members of all ages or theatrical preferences. Dapper-suited, Jimi (and his brothers) give audiences some memorable booty-shaking dance moments in accompaniment of the show’s disco segment and action moves effortlessly about the stage as digital projections fill the blank back wall. Handheld cameras film live puppetry from richly-detailed dioramas situated either side of the stage, in share of some of the childhood fables of Mabuiag.

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Song, dance and fire-side stories all add to storytelling and also, at times, humour. A highlight comes, for example, from within the show’s examination of contemporary cultural influences, as 15-year-old son Dmitri Ahwang-Bani demonstrates the reality of typical dress these days (because they ‘don’t get around in traditional clothing’), as if part of an anthropological exhibit. And yet there are also many engaging moments watching the family’s passion in performing in traditional dress.

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With its important messages regarding the role of culture in identity, “My Name is Jimi”, has an immediate appeal to school groups, and much to offer younger audience members through the engagement of its varied theatrical devices. There is an honest appeal to the intimacy of its family stories, meaning that when Jimi’s mother and grandmother wave hello in introduction, audience members all around are waving back from within the darkness. And the show’s memorable final family image lasts beyond its close in reminder of what is important in life.

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“My Name is Jimi” is story-telling is at its finest, personal, powerful and special beyond just its four generations of one family on stage together. Writer and lead actor, Jimi Bani is charismatic and the story he shares is charming, but also informative (beginning with its introductory glossary of names from family tree relationships) and important. Under Jason Klarwein’s instinctive direction, the cast’s generous, honest performances offer audience member contemplation of big issues but also joyous appreciation of their own family ties.

Photos c/o – Veronica Sagredo

The linger of life lessons

Once in Royal David’s City (Queensland Theatre and Black Swan State Theatre Company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

April 22 – May 14

If theatre is about making you think about life, then former QTC Artist Director Michael Gow’s “Once in Royal David’s City” (his first play in seven years) is theatre at its best as it takes audiences on a beautiful and emotional journey through life’s phases of hearing, living and telling stories, in exploration of what gives our life vulnerability, but also meaning.

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The play tells the tale of a mother and son dealing with the death of a loved one. Will (Jason Klarwein) is a Brecht-obsessed theatre director whose father has recently passed away. He wants to treat his mother (Penny Everingham) to a relaxing Christmas break so they can spend some quality time together. Yet, what sounds like a simple story becomes so much more as the non-linear narrative (with Will as narrator) spans time and location, taking audiences from West Berlin to Byron Bay and from the 1950s to the present.

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There are many nods to motifs of Gow’s seminal “Away” in that it sees a family holidaying by the beach at the typically-emotionally charged Christmas time (its title is that of a processional hymn about shattering perceptions of a picturesque nativity with reality, and its program cover is appropriately red and green in its design). However, its use of the Brechtian techniques sets it apart. Indeed, in early sections it seems that this is a show for drama folk, with its frequent references not just to the German director but to classic texts like “The Important of Being Earnest” and “Mother Courage and Her Children”, both of which have also appeared on the Playhouse stage in recent years. But as things progress, the references become more fused with contemporary realism, bringing with them considerations not ultimately appreciated until its final bookend ‘lecture’ on Brechtian theory and technique.

While the show is full of heartfelt moments and silences for audiences to fall into, with lip-biting, ‘I will not cry’ resolution in response to its challenging subject matter of saying goodbye to a loved one, there is a lot of light-heartedness too, including spontaneous song and dance numbers and amusing dialogue, with perfect comic-timing delivery of some early-show one liners.

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The ensemble cast is a strong one, led by Brisbane’s own Jason Klarwein in the complex leading role. As Will, Klarwein gives a riveting and finely-nuanced performance as a character dealing with emotional obstacles and the very human dilemmas of grief, loss, identity and an associated personal crisis of insecurity within a passion. As his ailing mother Jeannie, Penny Everingham is wonderfully spirited but ultimately vulnerable and Steven Turner, in particular, assumes multiple roles, all with equal ease.

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The talented creative team allows the actors to take centre stage. Stephen Curtis’s design is simple yet effective down to the smallest details, such as the hand sweep of curtains that sometimes signpost scene changes. The production benefits from an evocatively minimalist set and Matt Scott’s rich lighting design, which transports audiences between the stark fluorescence of hospital ward lighting to brilliantly backlit shadow play of a Marxist revolution, well-deserving of its opening night smattering of mid-show applause.

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As a co-production with Perth’s Black Swan State Theatre Company, “Once in Royal David’s City” serves as display of all the good things that can come from collaboration. In the hands of Queensland Theatre’s Artistic Director Sam Strong, in directorial debut with the company, it is becomes a sensitive and engaging take of a compassionate story. The wonderfully life-affirming work is surprising, sad and unexpectedly funny, and could only perhaps be better if it were being seen in the festive season itself.

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“Once in Royal David’s City” is a beautifully crafted show from one of this country’s best playwrights and, accordingly, there is much to be taken away from its experience, both intellectually and emotionally. Not only are there references to Marxism and Christianity to continue to consider, but its ubiquitous reminder of our mortality and the need to enjoy life to fullest and cherish those special to us are poignant enough to linger as lessons long after its conclusion. And Molly’s (Kay Stevenson) monologue about the blink-of-an-eye progress from carefree teenage skylarking to the increased doctors’ visits that come with age will certainly resonate with many audience members. Still, “Once in Royal David’s City” is an enigmatic show… the type you want to tell everyone you know to see, without revealing specifics about its at-once intimate and epic journey in answer to American physicist and children’s television presenter Dr Julius Sumner Miller ‘s ask, ‘why is it so?’

Photos – c/o Philip Gostelow, photographed at Heath Ledger Theatre, Northbridge, WA