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, however, as the plot progresses his monologues appear as a distracting hybrid of accents.

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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 cannon, 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.

Superlative songstresses

Women in Voice

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

November 3 – 12

Brisbane’s iconic cabaret institution “Women in Voice” is about celebrating individuality of entertainers from different musical backgrounds and generations. As such, its performers not only become backup for each other’s numbers, but are left to independently select songs. …. All except Bethan Ellsmore who has stepped in to the show as replacement for Sahara Beck at only 24 hours’ notice. Joining this year’s formidable line up of talented soloists, Alicia Cush, Leah Cotterell and Allison St Ledger, Ellsmore provides a pure-voiced set of songs beginning with a beautiful take of Split Enz’s ‘I Hope I Never’ and soon has the audience swaying along to the sounds of ‘Blue Velvet’. It is a selection that sits well against the night’s eclectic musical line-up.

The show opens with a melodic take on The Church’s signature ‘Under The Milky Way’, as Alicia Crush takes the audience through a musical study of home. Proving her immense talent, she transports listeners through operatic highs and smooth country sounds before finishing with a jazzy Bublé number, inset with her own flute solo.  The soulful Leah Cotterell then roars the audience to intermission in a set that includes a mix of original and well-known numbers… including another Oz-rock classic with The Angels’ ‘Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again’, complete with expletive-laden audience response.

The packed opening night audience, full of ‘girls night out’ groups, loved every minute of music and more. As emcee, Judy Hainsworth entertains in jester role, complete with changing brightly coloured, motley costume, taking the audience on a tongue-in-cheer tour of the year that has been and a musical recap of the life of a performer on tour, amongst other journeys. Transporting audiences to another time or place is part of the magic of live performance and the show’s final set, from “Women in Voice” royalty Alison St Ledger, does exactly this as she takes the audience on a fabulously fun trip down retro-memory lane to Jackson Five and Bee Gee boogie, completed with disco dudette while suit.

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As always, “Women in Voice” is an immensely entertaining musical experience, thanks also to the accomplished live band (under Musical Director Stephen Russell). When the superlative songstresses come together to look towards the good things to come in a concluding Cat Stevens’ ‘Peace Train’ it is a glorious, goosebumpy moment proving that more than just another song concert, “Women in Voice” is a celebration of talent, that, like any good celebration, is best enjoyed when shared with ‘the more the merrier’ as a mantra.

Creative Collusion

Muscle Memory (Collusion)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

August 17 – 20

Collusion‘s “Muscle Memory” is an exquisite experience of creative collaboration; the shared artistic adventure features the versatile music quartet and exciting young pre-professional dancers from the Queensland Ballet presenting a collection of five heartfelt and virtuosic works. And the result of the heightened synchronicity of dance and live music is simply superb… an experience sure to stay with audiences regardless of their level of dance acquaintance.

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From the opening number ‘Urban Myths, a look at the image of the ‘perfect marriage’ and what might lie beneath its sepia photographs, it is clear that all of the dancers are first rate in both execution of former Queensland Ballet’s Gareth Belling’s choreography and conveyance of that something magical that defines ballet. At once graceful and strong, they demonstrate precision, subtlety and strength, whether through Pointe technique or Fouetté, across the range of numbers, from the lyrical liquidity of duets like ‘Mourning Song’, about a woman remembering a lover who has died and their one last dance together, to the machine-like collective synchronisation ‘Transition Sequence.

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Collusion, as always, exude excellence, none more so than Benjamin Greaves. His powerful violin performance alongside Cellist Danielle Bentley from front of stage steals the show during ‘Mourning Song’, such is his dynamism of his thoroughly engaging skill. The World Premiere of Philip Eames’ commissioned piano quintet ‘Annealed Cyan Malt’ is also a highlight, adding another layer to the already-unique ‘Refraction’, during which dancers are all signed a colour, and can only interact with the colours directly next to them in the spectrum.

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Supporting the works’ thematic diversity is Ben Hughes’ luscious lighting design, taking audiences from the contrasting passion and tranquillity of ‘Urban Myths’ to the kaleidoscopic colour and energy of ‘Refraction’. Noelene Hill’s careful costumes, too, create some stunning imagery, such as that of Hannah Clark swathed in an upturned tutu in playful competition with Daniel Kempson in ‘Transference’.

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“Muscle Memory” is Australian choreographed, composed, produced and performed art at its beautiful best. Its too-short season at The Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts offers an intimate and comparatively inexpensive opportunity to see the ballet stars of tomorrow that is simply tutu good to miss.

Photos c/o – FenLan Photography