Antigone afresh

Antigone (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

October 26 – November 16

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Sophocles’ Angione is more than two million years old, yet as a story with conflict at its heart, it is still relevant today as Queensland Theatre’s epic season finale, “Antigone”, written by Merlynn Tong, illustrates. While there is a clear 2019 resonance to Antigone’s (Jessica Tovey) passionate activist rebellion and rejection of authority, however, the Greek tragedy is presented not so much as her story as much as that of the new leader of Thebes, Creon (Christen O’Leary). Indeed, while young Antigone is a fierce and powerful female who stands up for her values despite powerful criticism, hers is not the main conflict of this play as her power struggle with Creon morphs into one between Creon and her son Haemon (Kevin Spink), who is engaged to Antigone.

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Having Creon played by a woman breathes new life into the text. Not only is the character transformed from a weary man suffering the burdens of rule to an alert and assertive political powerhouse, but it means that the play is no longer just about a woman challenging the patriarchy. Tong has written an adaptation for modern times in many ways, not just through its feminist representations. “Antigone” leads us to consideration of the parity of sorrow as only those whose lives are given in service of the ruler are worthy of mourning; because Eteocles died that way in a civil war, he is afforded a state funeral and a public display of grief, whereas because his brother Polyneices was killed fighting on the other side in recent hostilities, his body has been left to rot and his soul forbidden to be put to rest. By order of Creon, anyone who honours Polyneices with burial does so on pain of death.

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The grieving, heartbroken Antigone, sister to the dead men (sons of Oedipus and Jocasta) and niece to Creon, is determined to do right by both of her brothers and so the epic argument rages on in realisation of the prophet Tiresias’ (Penny Everingham) foreboding forecast. And as Antigone challenges Thebe’s leader for the right to bury and mourn her dead brother with dignity, the great city of Thebes, as well as a family looks set to be torn apart.

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Rather than a Greek chorus, at the play’s opening, we were presented with one of many operatic musical moments from Shubshri Kandiah (as Antigone’s radiant sister Ismene), which elevates the tragedy’s emotion. Despite a lengthy opening song and monologue from Creon, the show is pretty tight, thanks to the excellence of its cast, as compelling performances cut through the sometimes lengthy monologues to engage the audience.

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Tovey’s Antigone is strong and purposeful… a determined young woman who believes nothing is more important than the debt owed to family and the dead. Spink is also impressive as her ill-fated fiancé Haemon. It is O’Leary, however, who delivers the show’s standout performance. Her scenes of eloquent political oration are riveting in their authenticity down to the nuance of gesture as she channels the confidence, passion and voice modulation of the most purposeful of political speakers. Rather than just conveying stubborn calculation, she infuses the character with a vulnerability the elicits our empathy.

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Staging is deceptively simple but effective, as Queensland Theatre continues to show audiences new ways in which the Bille Brown Theatre space can be used. Ben Hughes’s rich lighting design befits the story’s big theme and Tony Brumpton’s sound design assists in amplifying the drama. And costumes are creatively detailed, but, like other creative aspects, allow performances rooms to resonate at the forefront of the production’s impression.

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“Antigone” is a strong show, but its’ short and sweet 70 minutes’ duration, leaves some characters unexplored. Still, Tong has done an admirable job of not only refreshing the story while remaining true to the original text, but making it accessible to people who are not necessarily familiar with the classic. Under Travis Dowling’s direction, the story is clear and easy to follow with no prior knowledge of Sophocles’ play, though, of course, familiarity does allow for the fostering of deeper connections. The show’s traditional touch stands it in impressive stead; it is full of drama as all the best theatre should be.

Considerations of quality

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A couple of months away travelling and a couple more laid up with pneumonia and I saw fewer shows in 2017 than in recent years (but still well into the double digits). Reflecting, it is clear that quality over quantity can be incredibly rewarding. And what quality there was on offer… so much so that my usual top five favourite, has been blown out to the following ten:

  1. Torch Songs (Mama Alto, Brisbane Powerhouse, Wonderland Festival)
  2. Lady Beatle (the little red company, La Boite Theatre Company)
  3. My Name is Jimi (Queensland Theatre)
  4. Once in Royal David’s City (Queensland Theatre)
  5. The Play that Goes Wrong (Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, QPAC)
  6. Chef (Persona Inc & Atobiz Ltd, Brisbane Powerhouse, Brisbane Festival)
  7. Nigel Kennedy: Vivaldi The New Four Seasons + Dedications (Nigel Kennedy, QPAC)
  8. Kinky Boots (Michael Cassel in association with Cameron Mackintosh, QPAC)
  9. Spectate (Counterpilot, Metro Arts)
  10. Humans (Circa, QPAC)

And honourable mention to the UK’s National Theatre Stage to Screen show Yerma… Gut-wrenching, phenomenal theatre thanks to Billie Piper’s devastatingly powerful performance.

And mention also to the following highlights:

  • Best performance:
    • Elaine Crombie as a hilarious house-slave in Queensland Theatre Company’s An Octoroon.
    • Merlynn Tong in her intimate and vulnerable one-woman work, Playlab’s Blue Bones
    • Cameron Hurry as badly behaved brother Valene in the darkly irreverent The Lonesome West by Troop Productions
  • Best AV – Spectate (Counterpilot, Metro Arts)
  • Most thought provoking –- Octoroon (Queensland Theatre, Brisbane Festival)
  • Best new work – Merlyn Tong’s Blue Bones (Playlab, Brisbane Powerhouse)
  • Best Reimagining – Signifying Nothing (Macbeth) (Hammond Fleet Productions, Brisbane Festival)
  • Best musical – Kinky Boots (Michael Cassel in association with Cameron Mackintosh, QPAC)
  • Best cabaret:
    • Torch Songs (Mama Alto, Brisbane Powerhouse, Wonderland Festival)
    • Lady Beatle (The Little Red Company, La Boite Theatre Company)
    • Song Lines (Michael Tuahine, Brisbane Powerhouse, Brisbane Cabaret Festival)
    • Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs (Alan Cumming, Brisbane Powerhouse, Brisbane Cabaret Festival)
  • Best music – Nigel Kennedy: Vivaldi The New Four Seasons + Dedications (QPAC)
  • Best opera – Mark Vincent Sings Mario Lanza and the Classics (Lunchbox Productions, QPAC)
  • Funniest – The Play That Goes Wrong (Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, QPAC)
  • Most fun – Let Them Eat Cake (Act/React, Anywhere Festival)
  • Most madcap – Chef (Persona Inc & Atobiz Ltd, Brisbane Powerhouse, Brisbane Festival)
  • Most immersive – Trainspotting Live (In Your Face Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse)
  • Most moving – Once in Royal David’s City (Queensland Theatre)

2018 looks set to continue to showcase both the wonderful work of this state’s creatives and innovative works from both here and further afield. Festivals will continue to punctuate the cultural calendar, serving to oscillate audiences between feast and famine like a cultural bulimic… although with Brisbane Powerhouse’s Melt Festival moving to May (maybe at the same time as Anywhere Festival) it may be a shower than usual start to the year.

Singaporean shades of something special

Blue Bones (Playlab)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

May 4 – 13

“Blue Bones” may not be a local story, but as the story of Brisbane playwright/performer Merlyn Tong, it is just as engaging, thanks to the honesty at the heart of its turbulent journey. On stage, as in real life, the story emerges from Tong being told by a doctor of a crack in her spine – the result of trauma from many years ago. And so she recounts story of the scars left by her school-days ex-boyfriend, including exactly how he managed to get under her skin, taking audiences, in the process, back to Singapore and all of its idiosyncrasies and melting pot of cuisines.

The resulting stories of school days and friendships are filled with realistic, recounted dialogue and much early humour as Tong injects anecdotes into the personal story by enacting every character of her recollection, teachers and friends alike, each with their own idiosyncrasies and individual nuances, and jumping between their portrayals with ease.

Then romance begins in the an arcade game parlour; when the claw machine champ meets a Dance Revolution devotee, its meant to be. She has her own dance competition goals and after-school Burger King job, but she has never been kissed like that before so love soon follows. And before long they are their school’s perfect couple, filling their days with the fun of theme park visits and Mcdonalds meals. But behind perfection lies increasingly verbal and then physical abuse, necessarily uncomfortable it its recall.

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It is an emotional experience, as memory plays often are, especially in Tong’s recount of living every day at the edge of uncertainty. The descriptions of her seasons of abuse are evocative and Tong’s performance is often tortured in its truthfulness. Over the course of her 90 minutes alone on stage, she takes audiences on an intimate and very vulnerable account without over-play of its pathos.

Adding to audience engagement is the technical support of her story. Guy Webster and David Walters’ Sound and Lighting Design make for some haunting moments, particularly in work towards its cathartic conclusion. And the provision of backdrop photos and cartoon imagery of Singapore life that comes courtesy of Video Designer Nathan Sibthorpe enlivens the show akin to the appearance of a second character.

New plays are difficult because there isn’t a template to call upon. In her creation of a template in “Blue Bones” Merylnn Tong, along with Director Ian Lawson, has created a very special, outstanding theatrical work… original, idiosyncratic and ultimately uplifting. Indeed, this is an absorbing show that needs to be seen by as many young women (and men) as possible in reminder that whatever its shade, no bruise is okay.

Not so straight forward

Straight White Men (La Boite & State Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

July 27 – August 13

“Straight White Men” is a difficult show to review. From the initial moments of its experience it subverts expectations by blasting the awaiting audience with an uncomfortably loud, rattling pre-show soundtrack of female hip-hop music, complete with explicit lyrics, before beginning with a stage manager (nominated by its Korean-American playwright Young Jean Lee to be a non-gender-conforming female of colour), greeting the audience.

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In contrast, the story itself begins simply enough with initial scenes that appear to emulate family sitcom conventions. What seems to be constructed as a classic American family drama (set somewhere in its Midwest), however, emerges as so much more as it probes the construct of masculine identity. The work, brought to Queensland by La Boite Theatre Company in collaboration with State Theatre Company of South Australia, explores what could be perceived as the oldest birth privilege around – to be a straight white man.

When recently-widowed Ed (Roger Newcombe) welcomes his middle-aged sons home for Christmas, their exuberant celebration and sibling hijinks are but a veneer to the question of privilege. All of the men are successful; the youngest, Drew (Lucas Stibbard) is an award-winning writer, middle-brother Jake (Chris Pitman) is a hotshot banker who refuses to apologise for his success and eldest sibling Matt (Hugh Parker) has been working a series of temp jobs at social organisations, but is living with his Dad as he attempts to repay his student loans. Harvard graduate Matt, traditionally acknowledged as the brightest of the three, has a long history of championing minorities, yet questions what he is meant to do with his life, which leads to his sudden breakdown in tears, without apparent reason or explanation, during a night of Chinese food and foolery.

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Although the switch from parody to provocation is subtle, more recognisable in retrospect than experience, the distinct chapters to the show’s tone sometimes labour its rhythm. For example, after teasing and mocking each other in brotherly banter and having too much to drink, characters engage in a dance off, which, although fabulously funny, drags long beyond its natural endpoint.

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As the rowdiest of the brothers, Pitman gives an engaging performance as the least likeable of the siblings. And Stibbard is similarly solid as the put-upon youngest brother Drew. But appropriately for a play that is primarily about Matt’s experience in just trying to stay out of the way of life, Parker gives a layered performance that hints at his inner sorrow well before his character’s tearful breakdown, proving what an asset he is to any production.

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Rounding out the cast is Newcombe as their loveable dad, adorable in his insistence that they adhere to traditions like Christmas pyjamas and attempt to join in their dance party, and Stagehand-In-Charge Merlynn Tong who, through the simplest of smiles and nods, brings a humour to the role to make it more than just a meta-theatrical device.

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Appropriately, the one-room middle-class family drama takes place in a white living room (designed by Victoria Lamb), naturalistic in aesthetic thanks also to Ben Hughes’ lighting. Further bringing Lee’s script to life is the music composed by Kim ‘Busty Beatz’ Bowers, La Boite Artist-in-Resident and musical director of Black Honey Company. Still, holistically, the work seems unsatisfying, particularly in its conclusion and it is its cast that ultimately carries its success.

Although relatively simple, the plot’s universal appeal suffers from the playwright’s requirement for there to be no alterations, meaning that the character’s jarring American accents and the narrative’s US references, alienate rather than appeal. Still, the show’s examination of the notions of ambition, activism and the value of capitalist ideas of success provide valuable consideration in any western culture. And as a satire and show of social consideration, “Straight White Men” represents the deep and diverse theatre at the core of La Boite’s artistic vision and thus Brisbane’s dynamic theatre culture.

Storytelling behind experience

Ma Ma Ma Mad (Wax Lyrical Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Studio

December 3 – 6

“Ma Ma Ma Mad” comes with a personal note from the artists left on audience seats…”Suicide can have a devastating impact on the families of love ones left behind. Researchers … have found that children who are under the age of 18 when their parents [especially mothers] commit suicide are three times more likely to commit suicide themselves.” Despite this thematic foreboding, the show that follows is a story of hope and love in fond remembrance of writer/performer Merlynn Tong’s mother, mixed with a welcome dose of humour from within its Chinese Karaoke bar setting.

The Karaoke bar is where Tong’s mother used to work as a Mama-san and, therefore, where Tong grew up. Unsurprisingly its recall is filled with recollection of the practicalities of the business and its colourful characters, of whom audiences catch glimpse from the Tong’s first passionate karaoke performance.

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Tong is a multi-talented actor, moving in and out of characters such as her mother, her maid and her ex-lovers with ease, bringing each to individual and often gloriously comic life, capturing repression and excitability with equal effect. Through simple yet effective costume changes she transforms from one character to the next, never dropping role, even in light of missed technical cues (“Disneyland has music”).  Although the Karaoke setting remains steadfast in background, lighting serves to establish alternative settings and facilitates easy return for karaoke sing-alongs.

“Ma Ma Ma Mad” is, however, ultimately, about Tong’s mother’s suicide, when Tong was just 14 years old. And, as is usually the case with shows based on personal experience, there is an underlying poignancy to the work thanks to its honesty, not just in reflection upon the life-altering event itself but the consequential maternal voice that has lingered in Tong’s art. However, it is would perhaps have been more cathartic for audiences to not have such an abrupt show ending.

“Ma Ma Ma Mad” is a special show in many ways and it is easy to appreciate its publication by Playlab this year. Of course it is wonderful to see Asian Australian tales on stage, but it is also rewarding to experience endearingly honest and entertaining stories such as this. It not only proves the truth of Tong’s reflection that she is a storyteller, but the comfort of storytelling of experiences being what makes us human.