Much (Ado) merriment

Much Ado About Nothing (shake & stir theatre company)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

January 10 – 11

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When the show starts well before the play begins with comic duo Constables Dogberry (Mckeira Cumming) and Verges (Cleo Taylor) leading the audience in Mexican wave and beach ball game to the sounds of Daddy Yankee’s ‘Gasolina’, it is clear that with this “Much Ado About Nothing” we are in for a good time. The vaudevillian clowning from the ockerish couple is the perfect preamble to the Queensland Youth Shakes Fest celebration of the works of William Shakespeare and share of their contemporary take of one of the Bard’s classic comedies.

“Much Ado About Nothing” tells the tale of returning war heroes and their fortunes and misfortunes in love. Decorated veteran Claudio returns to Messina and soon sets to woo host Don Pedro’s daughter, Hero. They are engaged to be married, but in the short period between the proposal and the wedding many misunderstandings and misleadings occur. The most prominent of these is the wedding party’s secret attempts to inspire passion between the quarrelling Benedick and Beatrice. From here one would hope for a double marriage ceremony but Shakespeare is rarely so simple.

The proverbially titled comedy is an excellent choice for this year’s production. It is easy to follow and gives opportunity for a large cast involvement. And this “Much Ado About Nothing” is certainly a crowd pleaser as it plays up the fun through song, dance and heaps of humour. Although this is an abridged version, the production retains all the wit and emotion of the original script. With a strong ensemble, clever direction and an effective design, it is fresh, exciting and impressive.

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Chelsea Dawson and Callum Ford are equally excellent as the modern, mature ‘rom-com’ sparing partners, Beatrice and Benedick, last to know they are in love, although perhaps more convincing as their individual characters than as part of the couple. Fittingly for the text-driven comedy, their delivery of the Shakespearan dialogue is eloquent and poetic, despite being mostly of insults, and together than provide an apt contrast to the more conventional courtship of Claudio (Charles Platt) and Hero (Megan Dale). Plus, their comic timing is highly entertaining.

Ford is particularly versatile, taking Benedick from roguish joker in his distain towards love to commitment in choice of love over friendship, so that we absolutely believe in the better version of himself that he becomes. Similarly, Dawson’s ability to portray Beatrice’s defensive wit alongside her genuinely heartfelt scenes such as in share of her sadness about never finding the right man, make her performance memorable in all of its moments. Also of note is Harlee Timms’s perfectly-pitched performance, as the nefarious Don John, the manipulative bastard half-brother of Don Pedro (Liam Wigney). His powerful portrayal of the trouble-making villain gives the audience a needed thought-provoking glimpse at the play’s sometimes darker themes.

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With staging full of bright colours and summer costumes, it takes the audience longer than usual to transition to the text’s darker later tones, despite the deliberateness of Director Johnny Balbuziente’s decisions to signpost character transitions as the plot progresses from silliness to seriousness (although unnecessary and easy-laugh stereotypes do not help).

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Delivered by some of Queensland’s brightest young actors, dancers and musicians, this is a most accessible Shakespeare. And to have put the work together to such a high standard in a matter of days is an amazing feat. The knockabout passion of the creative cohort energises the text and the manner in which the entire cast plays off the audience adds another level to an already fast-paced and funny piece of entertainment, showing that Shakespeare can still be as merriful as ever.

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Lonesome laughs

The Lonesome West (Troop Productions)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

November 8 – 18

“The Lonesome West” is one of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s Leenane trilogy which also includes “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and “A Skull in Connemara”. However, it doesn’t take this pre-knowledge to know that the show is set in a tiny village in County Galway on the West Coast of Ireland. The scene is set not only by its pre-show Celtic soundtrack, but the staging, which includes portraits of the Pope and JFK hanging on the wall of the rundown-farmhouse set.

The bleak dwelling is the home of the adult Connor brothers Coleman (Christopher Story) and Valene (Cameron Hurry). After the death of their father, the vindictive Coleman and miserly Valene are thrust upon each other to endlessly bicker, squabble and fight over anything and everything, from Valene’s collectable figurines to who is the bigger virgin. The animosity is long-standing, but has been revived by Valene’s sole inheritance of the dwelling as part of his father’s estate, leading to his gleeful withhold of money, moonshine poteen and even packets of Taytos potato ‘crips’, from his brother and to him marking all his belongings with a big ‘V’.

Putting aside another crisis of faith, troubled but well-meaning and gentle priest Father Welsh (Derek Draper), attempts to reconcile the brothers, fearing their violence will spiral towards a bloody end. Girleen, (Eva McGillivray) a beautiful young school girl, provides hope for a brighter future, if only the men can find compassion in their hearts. But soon we realise their feud is about more than just Coleman’s disrespect of Valeen’s new stove.

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The more-marathon-than-sprint result is, perhaps surprisingly, a darkly irreverent but uproariously funny black comedy full of political incorrectness in the brothers’ interactions. And as the two grown-up brothers still stuck in a cycle of adolescent squabbling, Story and Hurry are excellent. Indeed, all members of the cast give impressive performances, mastering the Irish accent, which becomes easier of ear with every ‘feck’ exclamation. Hurry, in particular, give a dynamic (and very funny) performance as Valene, who can’t help but react to his brother’s every little antagonism.

The two make the first act, in particular, absolutely entertaining. After intermission, things stall a little as the story drags with too many too-long pauses and unnecessary staging faffs, extending the show’s duration by almost an additional hour beyond the advertised running time as old ground is recovered, albeit wittily. Still, as the brothers’ cyclical behaviour sees moments of hope emerge only to be then snatched away as outrageous apologies serve to open old wounds, entertainment turns to introspection as audience members are guided to consideration of when it is no longer ok to laugh at someone’s selfish behaviour.

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Director Keiran Brice ensures that, initially, at least, the production uses pace and physicality to escalate the brothers’ acts of aggression. Comparatively, things falter when the tone shifts jarringly, with the revelations that come from both Girleen, the only female character in the story, and Father Welsh. Even considering its shifting sensibility, this initially funny but ultimately grim show is certainly worth the effort of its lengthy duration for a sometimes touching and often laugh-out-loud funny show, but maybe not on a tired school night.

Danish danger

The Hamlet Apocalypse (The Danger Ensemble)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

August 9 – 19

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“Hamlet” represents one of the stage’s greatest challenges. The complex work’s sense of reality is shaped by powerful, poetic words and language with some of the most popular lines ever written, and there is the challenge of its duration as the longest of Shakespeare’s plays. The Danger Ensemble’s contemporary performance about an ensemble of actors (Chris Beckey, Caroline Dunphy, Nicole Harvey, Thomas Hutchins, Polly Sara, Peta Ward and Mitch Wood) staging the play on the eve of the apocalypse may be much shorter (though still with room for Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and a horse) than its source material, but is as complex as ever as the play unravels and more of the actors’ real-life personal revelations and fears begin to emerge; they have a version of “Hamlet” that they have rehearsed, but as a countdown gets closer to zero the show has to be abridged and personal issues sorted.

Presenting any derivative of “Hamlet” is always going to be a trial of strength. And “The Hamlet Apocalypse” certainly realises its intention of taking the play of ideas to a new and exciting place. Although it is probably best appreciated by those familiar enough with the original text to be able to follow the now-fragmented narrative, this can also work to its disadvantage as the loss of much of the play’s musical language and dramatic poetry is lamented.

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This is a “Hamlet” for the now generation, in which the line between fiction and reality blurs. It’s not an easy transition, however, the experimental work keeps a sense of tragedy in its performers’ breaks of the fourth wall. There is still touch on themes of the power of death and the value of life, but humour too, added to, rather than derived from within the text. Usually it works, such as in a hilarious group ‘imaginary eating’ scene. At other times, however, it is at the expense of key moments and emotional expression, such as when Hamlet’s Act Two share of his descent into worthless melancholy is overshadowed, visually and verbally by a background Claudius and Gertrude spitting wine over each other.

A show of such layering, theatricality and physicality, of course, needs a skilled cast and in this regard there are no weak links. Thomas Hutchins makes for a commanding new King Claudius, second husband to Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (Caroline Dunphy) in contrast to his constant line-reminder interjections to others as ‘himself’. As the titular Hamlet, Mitch Wood gives a fine performance that provides feel more of frustration than introspection. And Chris Beckey gives a nuanced performance that makes for a memorable visual presence, often absorbed as one with the aesthetic.

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The show’s aesthetics are absorbing thanks to the sophisticated shading of Ben Hughes’ lighting design and Oscar Clark’s detailed, yet versatile costumes. Together, they make early scenes particularly stylistic in the slow-motion sensibility that acts in contrast to the big, hot mess of its conclusion (#inagoodway). Constantly we are reminded that we are watching a play. Indeed, never can the audience relax into the work, especially in the cresendoing chaos of concluding scenes as our attention is torn from ‘character’ to ‘character’ in simultaneous competition for our focus. And while the blinding visual flash and screeching soundscape countdown from ten to one that punctuates proceedings continues as novelty throughout, eliciting disruptive audience responses, this is probably the point.

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“The Hamlet Apocalypse” may be ‘Hamlet but not as you know it’, but it represents all that is interesting about experimental theatre and the essence of Director Steven Mitchell Wright’s characteristic vision, last seen the company’s wicked “Macbeth”.  Its rich all-encompassing aesthetic makes for rewarding theatrical experience. And in celebration of The Danger Ensemble’s ten year anniversary, it is an excellent choice of show for a return season.

Photos c/o – Morgan Roberts Photography

Dance discoveries

Pearl River Delta Dance

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

February 23

 If I were to have one criticism of “Pearl River Delta Dance”, I’d have two – it is only 70 minutes long and is a one-night only show. The work, which has come direct from the Guangdong Festival features as part of Brisbane’s inaugural SUPERCELL: Festival of Contemporary Dance where it not only serves as a highlight amongst the packed program of local and international artists, performances, workshops and conversations, but invigorates audience experience with a new discoveries within the genre.

It’s smorgasbord of diverse dance vignettes from China and Macau companies Guangdong Modern Dance Company (the first professional modern dance company founded in 1992 which has had a longstanding collaboration with Brisbane’s Expressions dance company), Max Dance Hall and Stella & Artists, the show platforms some the most progressive of Chinese talent emerging from the Pearl River Delta region, but leaves audiences with much to consider about both is political and everyday themes.

Things begin with the main piece, Guangdong Modern Dance Company’s performance of an iteration of the full-length work ‘Piece One’ by Li Pian Pian and Tan Yuan Bo. It’s traditional in type and almost classical ballet-like in the fluidity of the unison of interaction between its two performers Liu Qing-yu and He Min. There is a subtle but commanding synergy to the kaleidoscope of the duo’s movements in interaction with each other in motion, even down their every step of entrance and exit from the space.
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In contrast to this initial serenity, the program continues with some altogether different sensibilities in the smaller, almost sketch-like experimental segments from Macau companies Stella & Artists and Max Dance Hall. Rather than being introspective, ‘Four Legs is Good, Two Legs is Better’ focusses on the relationship between the individual and society, in particular the theme of class inequality, as implied by the Orwellian phraseology of its title. Despite its sparse staging, it is a visually arresting piece as performer (and choreographer) Albert Garcia appears costumed in contrasts; his upper body is adorned in ancient aristocratic dress while his lower body is in boxer shorts. Although he lip-syncs and moves to classical music, he does so without complete cultural heritage, in mockery of the vulgarity of society’s strata as symbolised by the different levelled tables with which he interacts. As things move from the operatic to the more organic, silence itself deliberates as rhythm and complement to his heightened, lithe physical expression.

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Stella & Artists’ ‘The Sun Rises As Usual’ also relies of silence as it builds layers of movement, patterned through repetition, as the audience watches on, also exposed as part of the performance due to the raised house lights. Pushing herself to fatigue, performer (and choreographer) Lou Hio-mei makes attempt to expose the layered and sometimes laboured nature of emotions. With deliberate repetition of training actions, a movement of handstand, flip and bridge is repeated with impressive stamina, strength and skill to become a sequenced action before, finally, to the pomp and circumstance of an imperial soundscape she transforms in joyous, smiling, excited discovery of the sun

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‘The Hands’, by Macau’s Max Dance Hall is something very special. The engrossing duet is a work to savour as its slick machine-like choreography interlocks its performers Kaman Ng and Lao Pui Lon in transition from a (as self-introduced) fake journalist news segment outline of milestones since 1967 to exchange of little stories, beautifully sad in their recount, using their bodies’ natural lines and energy to create new movements. Through sassy reaction and the bewilderment of playful bubbles, their roles change in nurture but their synergy, as evidenced by mirroring and counter of each other’s moves, draws them back to coordination. The soundscape for this piece in particular is a real highlight in its power, pulse and hum with music memorably including Bakermat’s ‘One Day (Vandaag)’, including integrated sample of Martin Luther King Jrn’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

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In terms of high-calibre performances, “Pearl River Delta Dance” is up there with best, most versatile and vigorous dance bills around and its inclusion in SUPERCELL should be applauded. Its presence shows how festivals such as this not only expand the communication spaces of companies, but allow more universal exposure to the cultural themes and commentary on offer and application of a global context lens of interpretation, which is so important in counter to the comfort of insular imaginations.

Swivel surprises

Dad. Joke. (Mark Swivel)

Judith Wright Centre, Shopfront

February 16 – 17

Surprisingly perhaps, comedian Mark Swivel’s “Dad. Joke.” contains only one deliberate dad joke, which might be a good thing for those who don’t particularly enjoy hearing the typically unfunny, corny offerings that this type of humour entails when usually displayed as part of special occasion speeches. Surprisingly too, is the substance behind the show’s ‘evidence-based musings’.

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Things are centred on a practical premise; Swivel is seeking advice in construction of a 21st birthday speech to his son. Gems of (mis)information follow as he not only reflects on life as a parent but memories of his own childhood experience. From politics to punctuation, pools and penis pumps, no topic is too random as he crafts together a very funny, but also surprisingly quite poignant show in its reflection of the nothingness moment of parenthood now passed.

Its appeal is not just for parents (conscious or otherwise) but anyone of that particularly generation who can recall waiting on lounge room beanbags for the Sunday night “Countdown” top ten or who can reflect amusingly on the idiosyncrasies of their own parents and upbringing or increasingly see their parents in themselves with every morning bathroom mirror look.

“Dad. Joke.” is a good-natured show of engaging anecdotes from an easy-to-listen-to presenter. Indeed, its relaxed pacing is refreshing as it takes audiences to the punchlines rather than rushing them in their faces. And while there is some limited audience interaction, if it is amiable and non-confrontation, meaning that even in the usual comedy front row centre danger seats, audience members can relax into the show’s surprising stories and the good time that ensues.

Abridged ambitions

Macbeth (shake & stir theatre company)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

January 13 – 14

Shakespeare’s most famous political tragedy, aka The Scottish Play dramatises the rise and fall of Macbeth’s ambition for power, with urging from his wife and the consequential slaying of all who are an obstacle in his path to kingship. It is one of the darkest and most complex of the Bard’s journeys with some of his most infamous characters.

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To select it for the 2017 Queensland Shakespeare Production is certainly ambitious, given that the cast (of 2016 Queensland Youth Shakespeare Festival competitors) and creatives had only six days to rehearse, block, choreograph, design and tech the work. But from the moment the show begins with Kuda Mapeza’s melodic caution that ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’, it is clear that the imaginative multi-arts exploration of the text is going to be an engaging one.

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This is an abridged version of the epic tragedy, cut down to just 75 minutes, yet still featuring all the key scenes and lines. Yet scene changes are almost imperceptible in their flow of actors, who enter from all parts of the performance space (even underneath its raised catwalks), never breaking the rhythm of the play.

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The physical theatre of its ensemble work is impressive, sitting well with its snippets of song and dance. Still, the production remains true to the violence of the savage drama and its fight scenes (choreographed by Johnny Balbuziente) are all impressive in creation of the illusion of physical combat. And there is even appearance of Shakespeare’s trademark witty innuendo in the porter scene, with Mitchell De Zwart not overplaying the bawdiness of the drunken gate-keeper’s exaggerated complaints and bawdy observations.

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Under the direction of Nelle Lee (along with Alexander Butt and Amy Ingram), Shakespeare’s language sits well in the mouths of cast members, evident particularly in the witches’ combined foreshadowing chants. Mathew Bengston gives a solid performance in the monumental role of the Scottish warrior poised at the point of possibility.

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As the ruthless Lady Macbeth, Evelina Singh is excellent. Indeed, her ‘milk of human kindness’ speech is a show highlight as she at-once conveys anger, confusion and despair along with her articulated ambivalence of gendered activity. Although the couple’s central relationship is not particularly gripping, however, this is perhaps a fault of the abridgement.

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The production’s aesthetics are impressive. A moody soundscape (from designer JP Vizcay Wilson) supports the shaping of Macbeth’s ambition in terms of the supernatural and the superstitious. And costumes offer interesting symbolism with players appearing in dark colours of contrast to the ensemble of witches, all dressed in white. While not the demotic secret black and midnight hags of Shakespeare’s imagining, the dishevelled coven convey an elemental force that is visually arresting in its grip of Macbeth as they intertwine about the stage.

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In the creative hands of a company with reputation for excellence in re-imagining the canon, like the previous Queensland Shakespeare Festival productions, “Macbeth” succeeds in bringing the Bard alive for contemporary audiences. It not only highlights the universality and ongoing relevance of Shakespeare’s themes but shows how, even in his darkest plays, there is still room for productions to make their own mark.

Photos c/o – Joel Devereux

Courageous collaboration

Orpheus and Eurydice (Judith Wright Centre, Blue Roo Theatre Company and Opera Queensland)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

December 1 – 3

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Theatre events don’t come more joyous than that realised in “Orpheus and Eurydice”. The rare collaboration sees a group of physically and intellectually disabled amateur performers from the inspiring Blue Roo Theatre Company performing alongside the state’s best operatic voices in staging a modified version of the 18th  century love story.

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The classic opera is a good choice; its story is a simple one, without any complex subplots and its scenes are packed with potential for emotional fulfilment. When Eurydice, Orpheus’ wife, dies, Orpheus, moved by his love decides to descend into the Underworld to bring her back. Hades, the ruler of the Underworld, agrees to let her go so long as Orpheus doesn’t gaze upon her until after she has re-entered the world of the living.

In this realisation, changes are made… beginning with a female Orpheus. The show does not suffer from the creative decision with Louise Dorsman still making for a conflicted Orpheus of powerful voice alongside Jessica Low’s soaring vocals as Eurydice. Their emotion-filled duet, with Eurydice fading in her love’s arms is a highlight on account of its moving intimacy. Indeed, all of the Opera Q principal vocalists are excellent in conveying the emotional journey of the main characters.

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The Blue Roo ensemble members, meanwhile, accompany Opera Q with gusto, assuming roles as the story’s fabled creatures, which they embody through gesture and physicality. And while as heavenly blessed sprits all dressed in white, they add much to the mood, it is clear that what they relish most is being the vicious furies blocking Orpheus’s path. After eight months of rehearsal to get the show ready, their outpouring of excitement and expanded personalities highlight the charisma that makes for much of the show’s success.

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The point of opera is that people are moved by the emotions and music. Accordingly, further adding to the collaboration, the new English translation of the opera is supported by a live orchestra of outstanding local musicians. The music gives a seriousness to story that could otherwise be dismissed as melodrama, yet provides whimsical moments of beauty in the blessed spirits scenes, thanks to the light touch of its strings and flute sounds.

Although there is much occupying the stage, with over two dozen ensemble members, a band of musicians, an Ausland interpreter and big screen for share of the opera’s English translation, staging remains relatively simple in support of the story’s varied emotional states. Josh Bilyj’s lighting design lifts Orpheus’ perilous journey across the River Styx yet also stunningly conveys the burning savagery of Gates of Hades

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Blue Roo’s work to redefine inclusive community engagement is certainly important and this celebration of its ensemble members and their passion for performance represents all that is good about the arts. “Orpheus and Eurydice” is a unique and heart-warming inclusive theatre production, inspired in its conception and inspiring in its realisation, sure to stay with audience members long after the show ends. Making the arts accessible to all, both on-stage and in the audience is a courageous aspiration, not because many of the people involved have disabilities but because of where they dare to go with their ambition.