Playing with political power

Spendour (Now Look Here)

Metro Arts, Sue Brennar Theatre

March 29 – April 8

While civil war rages outside in a snowy Eastern European-ish country, four women from very different backgrounds are bunkered in a lavish drawing room, waiting for a dictator to return home. As things deteriorate outside, so too does their civilised cordiality. There is an intensity to the tension that results as the dictator’s wife Micheleine (Pip Boyce) awaits her husband’s return, in the company of her supposed best friend Genevieve (Luisa Prosser), British photojournalist, Kathryn (Kerith Atkinson), who has arrived to photograph Micheleine’s husband, and her sly interpreter Gilma (Ngoc Phan). As they wait, they drink chilli vodka, eat oranges and talk … and things unravel.

Mutual mistrust and misunderstanding aside, however, there are still many moments of comedy as respite to the friction, which make Abi Morgan’s “Splendour” such a memorable audience experience of privilege and power. Unfamiliar with the language, Kathryn has to reply on Gilma, whose deliberate mistranslations make for many of the early laughs. Then the opportunistic interpreter begins to pilfer from the opulent surroundings, stuffing her pockets with everything from china teacups to children’s movies.

Micheleine carries a regal confidence and patronising demeanour in contrast to her modest friend Genevieve. And Boyce and Prosser play the dynamic to perfection. Boyce is particularly impressive in her stoic realisation of what awaits once the revolutionaries reach her, and esteem about being ‘history under their noses’. These are all strong women in their own different ways and it is wonderful to see a play that gives them a stage unto themselves. Although seemingly stereotypical, under Kate Wild’s direction, all are multifaceted, real and interesting to watch.


We never see the city that is being seized by revolution, nor is the country specified, which evokes some audience frustration, because this is a show that leaves you wanting to know more about its everything. It is a demanding but riveting experience, enhanced by its simple staging and stark soundtrack of haunting piano sounds. Its fragmented structure, too, provides much fascination as different perspectives are offered on the same events and characters reveal their inner thoughts and shifting emotional perspectives through interior monologue asides, almost as a running commentary on the action.

“Spendour” is an intricate and complex piece of storytelling. Indeed, it is a bold, beautifully-realised play, enhanced by some stellar performances. Its commentary about the fallibility of power is made all the more engrossing by its fractured form and claustrophobic feel, meaning that after some initial confusion due to translations when all dialogue is English, its dramatic 90-minute journey flies by despite being a slow burn of strained relationships and political uncertainty.

Desperation, despair and damn good drama

The Seagull (Now Look Here)

Metro Arts, The Warehouse

March 3 – 14

“Why do you wear so much black?” 

“I’m in mourning for my life.”

There could perhaps be no better opening line to epitomise the tone of Anton Chekhov’s acclaimed dramatic work. And, in “The Seagull”, one of his greatest plays, the mood is certainly one of despair, even when transported to a rural Australian property.

Now Look Here’s reimagining of the Russian classic certainly presents a fresh take on its famed naturalism, drawing upon its family dysfunction and flawed characters as it brings the work to life within Metro Arts’ cosy Warehouse space. Indeed, when crowded by the dozen strong ensemble, cast, the effect is quite suffocating and confronting, especially for front row audience member recipients of direct eye contact monologues. This emphasises the essence of the work, for in Chekhov, nothing is grand. Yet it would also be wonderful to see the production realised in a more mainstream venue, sans the sometimes crude lighting and backstage distractions that come as consequence of the intimate space.

seagull 2

“The Seagull” examines the unravelling of a group of family and friends’ desperate, tangled lives. Within the sorrow, however, there is a sense of humour and certain degree of absurdity. The show begins with a play within a play as the sulky, snarky young Kostya (Thomas Hutchins) presents his pretentious, self-indulgent work whose clichéd devices cause derision from his far-from-maternal ‘national treasure’ actress mother Irina (an Artist with a capital A, played by Louise Brehmer). His star is young Nina (Lizzie Ballinger) with whom he is infatuated (oddly gifting to her a dead seagull), but Nina is starstruck by Irina’s new love Boris (Matthew Filkins), a famous novelist who would prefer to spend time alone fishing rather than talking about his work. This is made into a love triangle by Masha (Ayeesha Ash), who is in love with Kostya. Indeed, if it weren’t for Kostya’s moments of madness and ultimate outcome, it could just as easily be fodder for a fabulous Noel-Coward style farce. Himself a doctor by profession, Chekhov was ‘sympathetic, but unsentimental’ in his treatment of what is, essentially, quite banal subject in the lives of ordinary people. But this is the beauty of his work, which speaks in fractured images.

“The Seagull” is a play full of drama, of those whose lives are lived (as Thoreau proclaimed in “Walden”) in quiet desperation. To bring this character driven intent to life on stage, requires tight direction and tremendous performances, and this version has both, making it a damn good drama. As an ensemble, the actors serve the source material well, exhibiting a sense of pre-occupation and selfishness, the motivation for which the text gives little explanation. In particular, Hutchins acquits himself well as Irina’s tormented son Kostya, a playwright prone to despair, presenting a sympathetic portrayal as he tries to cope with the loss of first his mother and then his love to a more successful artist. Kevin Hides also gives a memorable performance as the doctor, Dorn a figure of measured calm in the middle of all of a frenzy of frantic behaviour.

Although Chekhov’s work is masterful in its examination of the human condition, it is natural to be dubious about a modernised version of any classic. This is a worry without merit in the case of this work, which effectively updates the 120 year old text without destroying its anguished foundations. Director, Kate Wild presents audiences with a production that has much to say about dreams, disappointments and despair and even theatre itself (beyond its Shakespearean plot suggestions). As a disillusioned theatre maker Kostya observes about the need for new forms of theatre, “if we can’t find them, we’d be better to have nothing at all”. Thankfully now look here has found it and the Brisbane theatre scene is, accordingly, all the richer.