Blockbuster boy

Boy Swallows Universe (Queensland Theatre)

August 30 – October 9

QPAC, The Playhouse

With an absent alcoholic dad and a mum in jail, Eli Bell’s (Joe Klocek) 1980s adolescent life in Brisbane’s outer suburbs is all about timing. It’s a idea established from the opening scene of the Brisbane Festival blockbuster “Boy Swallows Universe” in the clock tower of Brisbane’s Town Hall as we are flashed forward seven years to where the story will end. And it is a motif that is especially appropriate given how sustained the ‘time does not exist’ audience engagement is between these two points of the production, which is written by Tim McGarry as an adaptation of the bestselling Australian novel inspired by Brisbane author Trent Dalton’s own childhood.

The first rule of storytelling is to show rather than tell, and this is what lies at the heart of the show’s success as it moves the audience quickly through the many early fast-moving scenes of its gritty coming of age story. Swift scene changes go virtually unnoticed within Renee Mulder’s dynamic design. It is all incredibly clever as a revolving stage is used and door frames appear to drop us into the intimacy of rooms that aren’t physically there. Ben Hughes’ lighting design creates atmosphere, especially to darken us into the suffering that comes in head to interval and Craig Wilkinson’s video design widens us to be, for example, under a starry sky as moving images bleed across the blank canvas of a stage to create suburban balconies and alike to give things a 3D effect. This similarly allows for the story’s blackness to seep in as it ebbs and flows from optimism to setback such as when Eli and his brother’s hopes of a life with the newly-returned-to-them mother are dashed by her continuing to live in a domestic abuse situation, showing that there is no shying away from the local novel’s confronting themes.

Brisbane mentions are enhanced by video design reminders of the visuals of place. And just as its costumes cover the spectrum of 80s fashion, Steven Francis’ pumping sound design allows songs of the era to bring back memories alongside of-the-time pop cultural mentions from “Family Ties” to famous Olympians. In the interest of creating light and shade, however, the musical vitality is largely gone in Act Two when things get more serious as seen through Eli’s maturing eyes.  

Humour and words of wisdom are used in equal measure to engage the audience, often from the most surprising of places, such as Eli’s friend and babysitter, Slim Halliday (Anthony Phelan), convicted killer and infamous Houdini of Boggo Road Gaol. In Act One, a lot of laughs come courtesy of Hoa Xuande’s portrayal of Eli’s criminal school fiend Darren Dang. In Act Two, they are from Anthony Gooley as hard-line but quippy Courier Mail Editor Brian Roberttson, who clearly does not suffer fools easily.

All characters are created with complexity, in reflection of Slim’s reminder to Eli that there are different types of good and bad. Mathew Cooper gives Eli’s father Robert an essential empathy and Michala Banas’ portrayal of Eli’s mother Frankie’s complexity is almost uncomfortably honest. It is Klocek, however, who carries the show with his portrayal of the boy with an adult soul, barely off stage for its duration. Over its course we see him both capture the mannerisms of a 12-year-old boy and also age through to a more confident and broad-shouldered 19-year-old standing surer in himself as he begins life as a journalist.

Some of Klocek’s best moments come when in banter with Tom Yaxley as Eli’s brother August, such as when the duo listen in on a school guidance councillor’s conversation of concern with their father about the traumatic event of the past that has fractured the family and caused August to stop speaking, instead silently swirling cryptic messages in the air with his finger. And while Yaxley says few words, his communication is in-depth, especially in attempt to come to his sibling’s rescue in the violence of Act One’s climax.

A great story isn’t automatically a great play. And while transformation of Trent Dalton’s hugely successful novel has been a massive undertaking (more than two years in the planning) it has absolutely paid off in what is probably the best show Queensland Theatre has ever produced, because of its approach to the story’s words. The show’s design ensures that while only essential words are needed, they still remain at the heart of things, with protagonist Eli’s letters to incarcerated Rebels motorcycle club Sergeant-at-Arms Alex Bermudez (Joss McWillian) appearing as projections across the space.

“Boy Swallows Universe” is a story of massive scale, clocking in at slightly under three hours duration (including interval), yet under Sam Strong’s tight and pacy direction, it feels like so much shorter with audience members engaged in its details to the point of even spontaneous applause in response to events on stage and reactions so seemingly genuine as to leave you wondering if they occur in the same moments of each performance. More than just recreating Trent Dalton’s story, the production honours the original text and refashions it as a work of its own, grounded beyond any just aesthetic veneer.

The confronting language, themes and violence that are integral to the narrative are littered throughout. Fight scenes (Fight and Intimacy Director Nigel Poulton) are realistic, and there is simulated violence in keeping with its mature themes. While there is certainly a lot of confrontation, however, this is part of the ultimate journey to optimism that serves as a key component of novel’s resonance. Queensland Theatre retains this core celebration of the spirit of resilience and the power of love to overcome dysfunction in what is a story of characters, but also real people and a family (motley as they may be), meaning that with its lots of laughs, time-to-time tears and essential heart, the landmark “Boy Swallows Universe” is something truly special and likely the best theatre you will have seen in a long time.

Photos c/o -David Kelly

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.

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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.