Behind the Shakespeare scenes

Caesar (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

July 23 – August 7

“Welcome Julius Caesar” we see posted on a side-of-stage whiteboard before La Boite’s world premiere contemporary reimagining of Shakespeare’s political thriller “Julius Caesar” fills the space.  As the show begins, there are notices added, a rack of costumes wheeled into place and hand props put in the required locations of their table by the stage manager of the obviously play within a play, Billy Fogarty. Soon, the actors being arriving for their first rehearsal. Chenoa Deemal, Giema Contini, Bryan Probets and Will Carseldine, who are all playing versions of themselves, peel in with praise as to each other’s previous performances. It is an immediately engaging and very funny foreshadow of what is to come, with nods made not only to their respective bodies of work, but also the traditions of the stage courtesy of the Scottish play superstitions et al.

While some scenes from Shakespeare’s tale of a self-absorbed politician and the men conspiring against him appear within the ensuing rehearsals, examination of the complicated, traditionally-masculine work occurs through what is going on around its fringes, which opens up access to the text to the youth audience to which it is particularly pitched. In fact, we never get to see any of the company’s in-season performance of their take of the classic play, climate change angle and all.  When Bryan and Giema rehearse as the eponymous statesman and his traditionally submissive wife Calpurnia, tech week tensions heighten to a clash of creative approaches that reveals much more than just differences in is their processes, leaving us to ponder if perhaps Caesar is not the only potential beast without a heart. 

Like its source material, “Caesar” is about power structure, duty, honour and responsibility, all of which have relevance in a contemporary society, especially when applied to the idea of diversity and representation on stage. And when things fast forward to a post show-within-the-show discussion, we get the funniest scene of all, not just in its initial clichéd questions and answers, but its escalating chaos after exposé’ of outdated attitudes and the use of overly familiar language. In particular, the TikTok livestream of the collective discussion is absolutely hilarious in its every authentic detail as it swells towards calls for Caesar to be slain.

References from the Shakespearean play are peppered throughout “Caesar”. Recent drama school graduate Will, who is playing Brutus, considers Bryan to be a North Star, in ignorance of how Giema and particularly Chenoa feel about his automatic assentation to the lead role. And while monologues from the psychological drama feature within the work, it is one in which Chenoa decries the tone-deafness of prima dona Bryan that leaves the most lasting impression as Deemal powerfully summarises her character’s feelings in relation to worth and about how she is seen.

While clearly catering for a youth market, “Caesar” offers much for audience members of all ages to appreciate, thanks to the collective efforts of its talented cast, support by slick sound (Anna Witaker) and video (Justin Harrison) design. More than a riff of Shakespeare’s play-within-a-play trope, this is one of the most meta shows you are likely to ever experience. Its five fierce non-binary and female-identifying playwrights (Claire Christian, Jean Tong, Megan Wilding, Merlynn Tong and Zoey Dawson) have crafted a clever and entertaining clap-back that is fresh and funny, especially for those familiar enough to appreciate the Tiktok feed contributions from Hugh Parker fans, for example.

With themes of power, politics and the patriarchy, there is lots going on in “Caesar” and while its five distinct acts have strong independent voices, this leaves the work feeling more as a sum of its parts than a cohesive whole. Still, under Sanja Simić’s swift direction, it captures audience attention immediately and maintains it well into its 90-minute duration. More than just illustrating the heartbeat to Shakespeare’s words, “Caesar” asks its audience to consider what these words do. And refreshingly, its challenges about representation, politicisation and gender in the theatre are clear without being blatant, instead provoking critical thinking that continues beyond even the play’s conclusion.

Photos c/o – Morgan Roberts Photography

Adolescent urgency

The Time is Now (La Boite Theatre)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

May 24 – June 5

“Real teenagers with real conviction … advocate for a better future” is how the marketing material for La Boite Theatre’s “The Time Is Now” is promoted. Its content is accordingly an expected socially-conscious examination of contemporary life through the urgency of young person’s lens… with a bit of Brechtian technique in its execution.

‘If you only had two minutes, what would you want to tell the rest of the world?’ we are asked at the outset of the work, which has been co-created by Ari Palani, Aleea Monsour and David Burton with La Boite’s Young Artist Company. From this, the setup of the show, is immediately clear as the young people gather in a citizen’s assembly or sorts where they are given this opportunity. The framework in which each of their two minutes of honest address around feelings of powerless when it comes to choice, is interesting in its shape, as each member of the often-depoliticised generational group proposes their suggestions for inclusions in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child, written before they were born and without consultation with any children.

The performers telling the audience how it is through their eyes (Omalkire Akil Ahmed, Huda Akhlaki, Jessica Boyd, Joe Cranitch, Sophia Ferreira da Luz, Diali Kemp, Rachel Kennedy, Zander Pynenburg, Carys Walsh and Fujia Sarah Xu) range from 12 to 18 years of age and represent a range of diverse cultures, backgrounds and political views, which adds depth to their discussions beyond the as-anticipated climate change outrage and alike. In particular, memorable moments come from Carys Walsh in articulate examination about the power of privilege and how every young person everywhere has the right to be listened to, as well as audience-favourite Omal’s tell of her journey from not feeling like she belonged to becoming a fierce Muslim queen.

Regardless of their particular focus, the young people all speak with conviction, so much so that, at times their words become lost in a rush of outpour or lapses in articulation and projection. And through the sometimes-contradictory ideas, there is an undeniable passion at the core of their big, revolutionary dreams and want for a world that is kind. Indeed, their passion and energy in telling of their frustrations, fears and vulnerabilities, cannot be denied. Michael Berkman – Greens MP for Maiwar (as the show’s promised adult cameo appearance on Opening Night) assures them of this towards to show’s conclusion.

This inclusion of an adult voice (different for each performance) to almost top and tail the 70-minute work is just one of the many ways in which the show is made more dynamic than might be suggested by its premise. There script is peppered with light-hearted commentary around ice-cream and the importance of immaturity alongside responsibility, and recall of silly dreams alongside the scary ones. Transitions of dance and structured movement also work well to keep things pacing along between each performer’s solo sections.

The strength of “The Time Is Now” as a contemporary verbatim theatre work is ultimately, however, its provision of a platform for young people to share their often dismissed or disregarded voices on political and social issues, as discussions of domestic violence, harassment, suicide, and mental health feature alongside pleas for the disenfranchised and deconstruction of the impacts of bullying and social media in their lives. And in what is La Boite’s first ever all-teenage mainstage cast, there is a clear resonate message from across its topics about adults not taking responsibility for or trying to fix things, especially in one of the most interesting segments in which the performers all rush forth to answer the question of what they want adults to know. And while some may fear for teens growing up in a pressured, screen-based world, “The Time Is Now” offers not only empowerment, but illustration of how there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the generation that has so much at the forefront of their hearts and minds.

Photos c/o – Markus Ravik

Comedy cabaret compilations

Bigger & Blacker (Steven Oliver)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

March 8 – 27

“Bigger & Blacker” begins with its star, Steven Oliver’s iconic line from ABC’s “Black Comedy”. It is appropriate, given that the Cloncurry-born writer and actor is probably best-known for his sketch performances in the fast-paced, provocative and bold foray into race relations, however, as his autobiographical comedy cabaret shows, there is much more to this self-proclaimed faboriginal descendant of the Kuku-Yalanji, Waanyi, Gangalidda, Woppaburra, Bundjalung and Biripi peoples.

The double-marginalisation of being a minority within a minority gives Oliver clear fodder for a content, especially in early sections, during which he combines comedy and contemplation with saucy stories, however, the show, which is currently playing at La Boite before touring nationally is equal parts cheeky and charming in his commanding showmanship and also touching in its emotional honestly as he talks about kinship, connection and affection for his mob, and poignant in his candid reflection on the downside of fame.

Music, like life, is a journey Oliver explains to the audience as he contextualises the cabaret’s creation through songs about his lived experiences, written over many years. And this is exactly what the show is as we are taken on not so much a narrative, but an insightful emotional trip through Oliver’s life since he performed in first professional acting gig in Brisbane in the early 1990s. The original songs showcase hiss talent as a songwriter, filled as they are with clever lyrics and rhymes, especially in the expected risqué numbers. Indeed, Oliver is a multi-talented songwriter and, consequently, the original score of the cabaret’s compilation runs from the perky pop to urban rap to lilting lullabies advertised in its descriptor.  

With a disco ball, tap routine, rap and ass shaking (there’s even a song about it), there are plenty of opportunities for Oliver to showcase his infectious energy. This is enhanced by the banter between him and his on-stage companion musician, Musical Director and Helpmann-Award winning cabaret star in his own right, Michael Griffiths, (who also provides back-up vocals and harmonies), meaning that you’re guaranteed a night full of hip-swinging, maraca moments and clap along celebration of storytelling and song.

Humour comes not only from the cabaret’s songs, but Oliver’s very funny bridging conversations with the audience, explaining, for example the linguistic flexibility of the semi-jovial term gammin as lead in to a quieter, affecting number on guitar, ‘Get Me’. Through heartfelt moments like this, the audience is given highlights, initially unexpected in their personal emotion, as Oliver explains how starring in a hit comedy show can lead to great sadness. Similarly, songs like ‘You Make Me Feel’ and ‘Just Like Smoke’ offer lovely declarations of love and reflections on rejection that balance nicely with the unashamedly faberet initially sections.

“Bigger & Blacker” certainly takes its audience to some interesting, unexpected places, including revelation of why we were hearing Whitney Houston amongst its pre-show songs. And when its variety of musical styles takes us to the melodic ‘Are You Okay’ and powerful encore spoken word call to action, ‘I’m a Blackfella’, opening night audience members are soon leaping to their feet in acclamation.

Photos c/o – Morgan Roberts Photography

Back with bite

Naked & Screaming

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

February 6 – 28

“You’re doing really well… I love you so much,” Simon tells his partner Emily as “Naked & Screaming” opens to a familiar birth scene scenario, apparently full of irony given the story that will unfold in the following 80 minutes of the show that marks La Boite Theatre’s return. Naked and Screaming may well describe how their baby Dylan has entered the world, but it also is a fitting account of how new parents Emily (Emily Burton) and Simon (Jackson McGovern) end up experiencing their first year of parenthood, emotionally exposed and silently screaming for help as their frank and difficult conversations about the imbalance of their new roles and the consequences of failing to meet expectations transform into the misfortune that can evolve from the share of the thoughts usually kept buried down deep.

The world premiere of the new Australian family tragedy from award-winning playwright Mark Rogers features dynamic direction by Sanja Simic, starting snappily with a quick move from Emily’s labour to the couple leaving hospital and facing the reality of responsibilities beyond. These early scenes are very funny in the hyperbolic familiarity of their domesticity and the couple’s clueless interactions with the invisible baby Dylan, even if on opening night, the couple’s volleying dialogue is sometimes lost underneath audience laughter.

Things move fast and as the pair’s passive aggressive erodes to outright snipes at each other, it is clear that the new parents are struggling. When Simon heads overseas on a three-week work trip, we watch left-alone Emily’s frustration initially still through the lens of humour until things shift. The clever script ensures that the laughs subtly recede as it is made clear that the sleep-deprived new mother is barely coping. And then an incident occurs that catalyses an unravelling of the couple’s relationship beyond just their new parent dilemmas about losing a sense of self, into a new realm of mistrust and resentment.

The fact that this is a two-hander means there is nowhere to hide on stage, allowing the audience to fully appreciate the performers’ detailed approaches to the physicality and interaction with their not-really-there baby, which is made all the more impressive by their effortless quick shifts from scene to scene and the associated, contrasting tones and emotions. And while it may take a moment to adjust to the invisibility of baby Dylan, even beyond its practicalities, this is soon understandable as this is a story about the dramatic twists and turns of the couple’s relationship and the raw emotions that these generate.

Staging is also effective in its apparent simplicity. La Boite’s in-the-round stage is one of neutral palettes upon which the chaos of laundry and toys soon paints an identifiable scene, with a giant mobile casting its hand over the domestic setting that set and costume designer Chloe Reeves has created. Ben Hughes’ lighting design works with Guy Webster’s sound design to chronicle passages of time and illuminate the couple’s most honest conversation before darkening their turn towards the worst of human nature. And while the story’s climax may not necessarily be what is anticipated from its enigmatic teaser blurb, it is still emotionally devastating.

While the play’s events occur in a Queensland setting with a scattering of location et al references, the universality of its themes means that its location is of minor significance. Indeed, this is a work that should resonate widely, not only with parents, but with anyone who has navigated the complexity that comes from intimate relationship connections. The fly-on-the-wall audience experience not only makes the dramatic thriller all the more compelling in its honesty, resulting in some audible audiences gasps of sorrow in the searing imagery of its final scene, but it memorably presents its biting commentary of societal expectations, leaving audiences with much to think about after the show’s end.

Photos c/o: Morgan Roberts

The Darkness divide

From Darkness (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

September 7 -28

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Just as all families are unique, it is probably a safe bet to say that all have their own individual issues and, accordingly, suburban family life has long been the fodder for the focus of theatrical works. In the case of “From Darkness” Steven Oliver’s take comes with humour but so much more; the darkly funny drama is, at its core, about bigger issues than just inter-generational disconnect as it explores a spiritual force and a family’s need to connect with it.

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The story begins on the anniversary of Vinnie’s death. His brother, 17-year old Preston (Benjin Maza) is being visited by spirits— seemingly tormenting him while he sleeps. His sister, Akira (Ebony McGuire) buries her pain in her phone. Their father, Eric (Colin Smith), is in denial and their mother, Abigail, is numbing her pain with ‘Jim, Jack and that Southern mob’ companionship.  Under Isaac Drandic’s direction, things pace along meaning that once force-of-nature Nan (Roxanne McDonald) arrives on the scene the family’s disconnect unravels swiftly in banter that becomes less playful and more accusatory, filled with explicit language, included not for shock value’s sake but to give authenticity to its dialogue.

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There is power in the momentum as its storyline paces along, meaning that the show’s 70-minute duration seems to fly by from dinner preparations to sitting down to share the family meal. While we are only provided with a snapshot of the family member’s lives, without full resolution there are enough steps towards solution to see us satisfied as audience members in reminder of how the first step to changing minds is healing hearts.

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The production’s cast is each stellar in its portrayal of characters with inner turmoil manifesting itself in interpersonal conflicts and a family divided. Of particular note, Roxanne McDonald is a joy as the family’s dynamic Nanna matriarch; perfectly timed in her sassy, whip-smart observations, she has the audience repeatedly in hysterics of laugher, which serves as an obvious juxtaposition to the pathos of Colin Smith’s Eric, trying his best to keep the peace between his wife and mother, while remaining stoic in his paternal grief.

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From the show’s initial scenes, it is clear that there is a spiritual force present in the house. Alongside an understated set, beautiful visual, sound and lighting design (Keith Deverell, Guy Webster and Ben Hughes) combine to paint a wonderfully evocative imagining of the something otherworldly that Preston is experiencing, making experience of the show quite moving.

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More than just providing a contemporary view of an Aboriginal Australian family, “From Darkness” offers exploration of the individualistic nature of grief and the ripple effect of tragedy which gives audiences much to contemplate. Its theme of connection too, is one that easily resonates, beneath any initial reaction to its sharp humour. Indeed, its ability to insert so many laugh-out-loud moments into such an otherwise dark storyline, is a testament to Steven Oliver’s script. And its focus on spirituality rather than politicisation evokes a wider consideration of modern Aboriginal Australian life.

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“From Darkness” is a quality new and important Australian work of a story that could be anybody’s. The world premiere of the La Boite and Brisbane Festival co-production brings a breadth of theatricality and engaging performances to provide audience members with a thoughtful and entertaining experience.

Photos c/o – Stephen Henry

Lady Beatle love love love

Lady Beatle (The Little Red Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

August 7 – 10

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When The Little Red Theatre Company first bought “Lady Beatle” to La Boite, the show soon became one of my favourites of 2017. And from the moment Naomi Price bursts forth with the penultimate ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ it is clear that the tradition is set to continue with the smash hit cabaret’s return to Brisbane. Her appropriate dress of military-style jacket, retro round John Lennon mirrored glasses and fabulous boots (Costume Designer Leigh Buchanan) simultaneously sets the tone of swinging sixties London, but also the everywhereness of Liverpoolean grey. With the brilliant, virtuosic lonely hearts club band in accompaniment, we are thrown straight into the show’s journey through the Beatles’ immortal catalogue. And with reimagined and reinterpreted songs featuring sparkling original arrangements, what a ride it is set to be, both over the course of the opening night performance and for the duration of the show’s Australian Magical Mystery Tour.

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If great cabaret is about taking people on a journey and giving them an experience as opposed to just singing some songs, then “Lady Beatle” is cabaret at its greatest and all you need for a wonderful night out. The songs are threaded together by a story of sorts and knowing how they will eventually unite does not diminish the show in re-experience. While the aha moment of revelation of the identity of Price’s character is lost, in its stead is an appreciation of the clever craftedness of its story’s tapestry throughout the show’s duration.

Like the collection of music we are celebrating, “Lady Beatle” is far from being one-note in its approach. Reimagining of the Fab Four’s songs bring them to new life in accompaniment of its tender and personal story. The musicians work wonderfully together to realise the show’s bold and diverse soundtrack and are also fittingly given their own times to shine. Most notably, on guitar, Jason McGregor’s solo makes ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ complete, while, on drums, Mik Easterman belts us into an upbeat, eclectic medley of ‘Love Me Do’, ‘Revolution’ and ‘Let It Be’.

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Price’s voice is also as on-point as ever, ranging from rich reverberation in ‘Eleanor Rigby’ (also featuring a stunning string arrangement by Bass Guitarist Andrew Johnson) to the gentle emotion of a stripped-back ‘With a Little Help From My Friends” and the stirring strength of a poignantly heartfelt ‘Don’t Let Me Down’.

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Jason Glenwright’s impressive lighting is as kaleidoscopic as the night’s soundtrack and represents a key component of the show’s experience, from its sparking accompaniment to ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ to bathing the Roundhouse Theatre space in blue for later yearning. And while lighting band members in separate colours seems like such a simple idea, it works perfectly to invigorate peppy early-career numbers of the ‘Twist & Shout’ sort. Indeed, lighting is integral in emphasising the musical mood throughout the show to its ‘Here Comes The Sun’ concluding celebration.

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The Little Red Theatre Company’s story of the Lady Beatle may not be the one you expect, but the show is all the better for this, especially given Price’s genuine charm as a performer. She is playful with the audience, often taking herself into the crowd, including to make a paired-back ‘Penny Lane’ an early highlight, and her energy is infectious. Even in the show’s emotional moments, in her hands, the experience still resonates with joy… because who doesn’t feel good in clap and sing-a-long to classics like ‘Yellow Submarine’ and ‘Hey Jude’.

It might be 50 years since The Beatles’ historic final rooftop concert, but with creators Adam Brunes and Naomi Price’s “Lady Beatle”, the band’s biggest chart toppers are able live on anew. As its yellow submarine-sized tour across the country is sure to be, its experience seems to be over all too soon, leaving audience members departing with smiles on their faces, warmth in their hearts and wish for a soundtrack release in order to keep relieving its joy.