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signBrisbane’s La Boite Theatre Company turned 90 last month, marking its milestone with a sensational 1920s celebration. And what a milestone it is, representing almost a century of bold ideas and creativity since the company was originally founded in 1925 as the Brisbane Repertory Theatre Society, under the direction of British teacher of speech and drama Barbara Sisley and English literature professor Jeremiah Joseph Stable.

The evolution of La Boite, one of the oldest continuously operating theatre companies in the country, from an amateur to a professional company has been detailed in a series of stories published online at http://90years.laboite.com.au/ to mark its anniversary, collaboratively compiled from the memories of theatre makers and appreciative audiences alike, and the result is a wonderful digital trip down memory lane.

After 15 years living in Brisbane, I make estimate of having seen 42 of the company’s shows, dating back to the last of the Hale Street venue days before its November 2003 move to its current Roundhouse Theatre home (Australia’s only purpose-built theatre-in-the-round) in the Kelvin Grove Urban Village, including its fitting final Hale Street show of David Williamson’s “The Removalists”. And of course I have my favourites:

  1. “Still Standing” (2003) – a music-filled immersion into the Brisbane rock scene of the 1980s as counter-culture to the repressive Bjelke-Petersen regime (an idea similarly well explored in the recent Metro Arts show “Prehistoric” by Elbow Room Productions). So infectiously great a time did the show provide, that I can still recall its songs some 12 years on.
  1. “The Mayne Inheritance” (2004) – based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Queensland author Rosamond Siemon and featuring Hayden Spencer in a menacing portrayal of the butcher of Brisbane, Patrick Mayne, whose alleged deathbed admission and blood-money legacy still reigns over the city.
  1. “Johnno” (2006) – a stunning realisation of David Malouf’s seminal Brisbane novel, staged in the Brisbane Powerhouse’s Powerhouse Theatre and memorably in a trough of ankle-deep water, the significance of which will not be lost on those familiar with the novel’s plot and themes.
  1. Medea” (2015) – a mighty production of the epic Greek tragedy thanks to the gothic sensibility of its aesthetics (including addition of a capella choir as re-imaged Greek chorus) and a powerful, passionate performance from Christen O’Leary.

It is more than coincidence that my top three are Brisbane stories. From the transition of many of Nick Earls’ novels from page to stage, to important political and cultural tales like the unapologetic exploration of Brisbane’s 1980s criminal underbelly, “Last Drinks” (2006), adapted from Andrew McGahan’s novel and the moving “Oodgeroo – Bloodline to Country” (2009) which chronicled not only the Stradbroke Island author’s love of country and culture, but the story of struggle for restoration of Indigenous identity, telling local stories is one of the things that La Boite has always done best. One can only hope it is a tradition that will be re-realised in the curation of future seasons because, as history has shown, home-grown theatre can equally be engaging and of world class calibre.

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While there are distinct memories of specific shows, like the cross stage appearance of a random giant penguin as part of 2011’s “Ruben Guthrie”, what is front of mind with any mention of La Boite is it intimate, democratised audience experience enabled by its unique space. Indeed, it is the truly in-the-round shows that rate amongst the best, most notably its recent outstanding production of “Medea”. This season, with the exception of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” every La Boite show has taken place in the round, a trend which will continue with next month’s World Premiere of “Prizefighter” as part of the Brisbane Festival’s Congolese connection, which will tell the story of a young boxer by Future D. Fidel, one of the company’s artists-in-residence, with audiences seating around the boxing ring in arena style, looking down on the action below.

As maker and sharer of exciting contemporary theatrical art, La Boite Theatre Company is not only an organisation at the heart of Queensland’s creative culture, but a national leader of Australia theatre. As the company’s Board Chair, Julian Myers stated at the birthday event on July 31, “to survive, flourish, adapt and stay relevant over 90 years, is no simple feat” and while looking back over the cultural legacy of these decades is important, anticipating a continued cultural legacy is also so very exciting.

Mighty Medea

Medea (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

May 30 – June 20

For the over two thousand years since her story was first shared in Greek legend, the character of Medea has reigned supreme as a monster mother. Wronged by her husband Jason who abandons their shared history (and her sacrifices) when he marries Princess Glauce, Medea is exiled with her children, despite her impressive lineage. From here she plots a bloody vengeance against her husband and sets to poisoning his new bride and killing her own children in pursuit of revenge against her husband.

It is an epic drama that hinges of the portrayal of its titular character. And Christen O’Leary more than delivers in the role. Her portrayal is of a passionate woman, outraged, intense, driven and strong. So much more than just rejected wife, she is a powerful presence of her own accord as partner and co-conspirator with Jason (Damien Cassidy) in their joint empire building endeavours.

with Jason

O’Leary’s realisation of the psyche of a woman whose identity has been shattered, is incredibility controlled and impressive. From the minute she embarks on her first monologue, delivered almost as manifesto to the audience, through moments of humble vulnerability, self-contended humour and harrowing despair, she takes the audience along on her roller coaster ride of emotions. Helen Christinson too, as the nurse and Princess Glauce is similarly impressive and she transitions easily between the distinct roles of loyal servant and entitled and empowered princess.

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From first entry into the Roundhouse Theatre, the audience is saturated by the spectacle of its staging and a gothic sensibility that encapsulates the darkness of the text’s themes. There is an almost occult-like feel to the tableaux, as if Medea is an apothecary setting to menace her enemy with potions.

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The setting is art; it’s an incredible visual experience, hauntingly beautiful and rich is aesthetic detail, and although the design is minimalistic, every inch is used to effect. Surrounded by a circle of lit candles and melted wax, a gnarled tree sits atop a large wooden table, providing opportunity for characters to climb to its heights, while two diagonally opposite stair sets serve not only as entry and exit points, but, at times, as stages within themselves. Even the walkway around the top of the stalls is used, which serves only to increase audience attention in an already engaging show. And it is wonderful to see a truly in-the-round production again filling the space. This is complemented by a re-imaged Greek chorus in the form of a capella choir (The Australian Voices) who introduce the narrative, comment on the action and interact with the actors. This does much to enhance the requisite mood and their subtle incorporation of modern classics such as INXS’s ‘Never Tear Us Apart’, is inspired.

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Certainly, this is a difficult text for any theatre-maker to tackle. Medea is one of the great dramatic female roles and, as such, the work has much to potentially say from a feminist perspective. Because of this, there can be wide differences in its on-stage interpretations. At its core, however, “Medea” is a story about power and the struggle for power, themes which still resonate today and it is of enormous credit to both playwright Suzie Miller and director Todd MacDonald that this production is so easily able to convey this universality. While it remains a morally challenging tale to tell, this incantation has been crafted so as to afford not just judgement but an attempt to inspire understanding of motivation. The result is an intense night of theatre that is not trying to tell audiences how to think as much as it is just urging them to think.

Attention is a finite resource, but it is one easily surrendered to a production of this calibre. La Boite’s “Medea” need to be commended not just for bringing Euripedes’s tragedy to life, but for doing so in such a mighty manner. The result is a gutsy but beautiful show and one of the highlights of La Boite’s program, not just for the year, but of the past decade.

Conversing the fine line

Awkward Conversation

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

November 18 – November 29

There is a fine line between ‘in your face’ and ‘f**ked up’ and it is a line that “Awkward Conversations” sometimes spills over in its presentation of intimate, yet bold works. But what else can be expected from a Week One marathon that begins with two of the most tragically confronting stories from the cannon of classic Greek literature?

First there is “Medea Redux” by Niel LaBute, a reimagined version of the classic tale, told in monologue revelation. The story of a mother who kills her children as means of reeking revenge isn’t the easiest material to make sense of for a modern audience, yet it works, told as it is from Medea’s confession to police tape recorder.

As Medea, Amy Ingram more than does justice to one of the greatest female roles in the theatrical canon. Teetering on the edge of audience empathy throughout she shows not only a heartbroken woman hell-bent on a revenge plot 14 years in the making, but also something of the giddiness of the undying infatuation and naïve innocence that attracted the high school teacher who became her exploitative childhood partner. And while Ingraham does bitter better than anyone, it is her initial vulnerability that is the most memorable aspect of her performance. Squirming, but never really moving beyond the confine of her confessional chair, she reluctantly recalls her story of teenage-hood stolen with the benefit of adult hindsight and it is in these reflections, rather than her story recount in the moment, where La Bute’s script really shines. There is even some well-placed humour mixed in with the shocking statements regarding her murder of her child, however, a plentiful placement of ‘ya’ and dropped g’s at times feels forced and detracts from chances to be caught up in her moments.

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Medea is regarded by many as being a feminist text, due to its sympathetic exploration of being a woman in a patriarchal society and it is interesting to ponder whether the motivation for her crimes matters. Indeed, it is something to prompt consideration long after the show has come to its shocking conclusion, which makes it a perfect inclusion for a curation of theatre works focussed on rattling and reeling audience members through its unflinching subject matter.

And the unspeakable tragedies continue with “Yokastas Redux”, the story of the Oedipus myth reimagined from the point of view of Yokasta, Oedipus’ wife and mother. When it comes to tragedy’s baddest mummas, you can’t go past Yokasta … or can you? (A show highlight is a Jerry Springer style character confrontation, in attempt to answer this.) Classic Greek figures abound and Yokasta features in three self-aware forms (the youngest her, middle ‘chip on her shoulder’ her and older ‘perpetually blissful’ her) so it can be difficult to follow for the uninitiated, hence the need for the ‘Oedipus the King’ cheat sheet that is provided to audience members.

At its core, “Yokastas Redux” is the narrative of a woman who loves her child and the man in her life (specifics of his same-identity aside) and Jane Barry gives a standout performance as the titular character, finally given the chance to clear the air and tell her side of the story. As the swollen-footed boy gifted to her by Zeus for her to teach to be king, Thomas Hutchins is also an imposing figure, aiding in the audience want for more of the story and the change to perhaps see the work developed further into a full-length show.

Dysfunctional family stories continue with “Debris”, the tale of two forsaken children searching for humour in the brutal world of their abandonment in the garbage that is their lives. And humour there is, with many laughs coming from the delivery of everyday lines within such a bleak and shocking story and Katy Cotter engaging in her realisation of child-like Michelle’s persona. The striking opening image, which sees the two protagonists amid a sea of garbage bags, makes for a promising beginning and interest continues as bags are shaped into make-shift props, however, this is a long and repetitive show in need of an edit. Clearly many of those in the sold out Week One marathon audience disagreed. I don’t care who you know in the show, however; to be taking even one photo with flash during a live performance is just plain rude. #whatiswrongwithpeople.

“This Child” is another gritty exploration of family relationships, explored in a volley of varied vignettes between parents and children, each packing an emotional punch, despite their gender blind presentation. Although this aspect is initially distracting, once Reuben Witsenhuysen brings to life a highly-strung mother character, it is soon easily forgotten. Character dynamics are engrained in the dialogue, however, there just needs to be more of it. Long pauses while the performers, all wearing varied basketball uniforms, stand and stare down the audience or chat amongst themselves to the pumping sounds of “Turn Down For What” make an indelible impact, but not always in a positive way.

If the inherent values of good theatre are exploration and challenge as much as entertainment, then “Awkward Conversations” is very good theatre. In bringing ancient work into focus for contemporary society, it certainly gives audiences much to talk about. Although there is little escape from the discomfort of its conversation starters, I don’t know that we would want it any other way.