Poison pair

Poison pairing

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

May 9 – 19

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“Poison” starts slowly. It is an afternoon in autumn in Holland (as we later discover) in a cemetery’s family room. Simple piano sounds sit over a soundscape of rain pouring. Emerging from the shitty weather, a woman reunites with a man who has travelled from France for the occasion. We gather there has been a separation of sorts but thanks to its enigmatic cat-and-mouse dialogue, for a long time we don’t know why they are there or much about the event causing graves to be relocated. Their relationship isn’t confirmed for a long time either, though the formal familiarity of their interaction suggests there is a significant (and fractured) backstory.

Early scenes make the audience work hard. Referring to events obliquely is perhaps more frustrating than intriguing for viewers who want to be taken on a journey, rather than being left to work hard in self-navigation towards realisation of its intended meaning. This is the script’s doing course, but something that is compounded by other early-show vaguery. There are lengthy silences for example, such as when He makes a coffee and we all wait through the discomfort of the silence.

The show is a two-hander, (though a number of other characters are referenced in the work we only ever meet two of them), but it is also work of two halves as, after their relationship and history are confirmed around the 30 minute mark, the second half settles beautifully as the cast of two presents raw, emotional and real drama. There is a staunch realism to the show that comes courtesy of its research into shared experiences of grief. Indeed, there is no neat and happy ending because sometimes things just end. There is, however, an immense sense of satisfaction that comes courtesy of the performances which effectively give the characters their distinctive voices.

The duo, He (Paul Bishop) and She (Elise) aren’t ever named which actually works; their story is bigger than that of their individual selves. And their meditation on grief as being similar in its difference makes for some thought-provoking theatre. Especially as He, Bishop gives a powerful, understated performance that resonates even when his interaction is over the telephone with an unseen character. Greig also gives a potent performance, conveying a strong sense of love despite the difficult moral dilemma and emotional turmoil they are facing.

Lot Vekemans’, “Poison”, speaks about what comes from tragedy so was always going to be a work far from folly. Over its moving 90 minute duration, we see the couple fight, cry, eat cheese and drink wine, but also reminisce, accuse, move forward and move on. And, as such, it stands tall in its sober ending, in contrast to its early real-time communication crawl.

This review is of the preview show of “Poison”.

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Premiere poignancy

Yielding (That Production Company)

Metro Arts, The Lumen Room

May 2 – 5

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“Yielding” is an affecting show about relationships, which is fundamentally at the heart of all quality theatre. Dot was once bold, strong and in control of her life. Since she suffered a stroke while attempting to cut out her back-yard Bougainvillea she is still strong in mind, but has been betrayed by her body. Liz, Dot’s daughter, has since sacrificed her life and career to care for her mother. There is no colour left in their tumultuous lives now, reflected by the muted tones of the show’s staging and costumes, which also rightly allow the performances to be at the fore of the sensitive and daring production that arcs in and out of recollection and reflection as the duo endure a crappy car ride home from visit to the doctor.

Talented performers Jessica Veurman-Betts and Joey Kohnke give gripping performances as the mother and daughter duo, each grappling with their circumstances. Kohnke effectively takes us into the fractured and frightening world of the still-spirited stroke victim in her language and movement, bringing both pathos and humour to the tricky role. The show is a physical one, as the characters move around and with each other, but also as they ripple across the stage together in stylised dances of haunting lyricism. But is in their silences that so much is also said and Timothy Wynn’s skilful direction wisely allows them (and us) to endure in them. Through the rich performances of both actors, we don’t pity them so much as empathise with their unyielding desperation to be seen and hear above the frustration of seeing themselves, their homes and their relationships through a different lens.

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The play is also beautifully realised through a cohesive design aesthetic. Daniel Anderson’s lighting works in conjunction with a delicate soundscape to transition scenes in and out of present experience, warming merry memories of when their roles were long-ago reversed. Its honesty and simplicity are, likewise, revealed in the craftedness of its script. In particular, its ‘beautiful but thorny’ bougainvillea motif works well as a metaphor for each woman’s sense of self, once regarded as attractive but now just annoyingly scrapping the side of the house.

Developed in consultation with Carers Queensland by Queensland playwright Emma Workman, “Yielding” is the first in a series of six one-act plays under the banner ‘Let’s Speak of the Unspoken’. And it doesn’t shy away from tackling the realities of the experiences it is representing, with some ongoing references to euthanasia and suicide. Indeed, there is an obvious, appealing authenticity to the show, which comes from its research, including meetings with many Brisbane support groups and with people who have family carers in their homes.

In That Production Company’s careful hands, “Yielding” is a powerful, poignant, raw and uncomfortably real play that, on a number of occasions, sees absorbed audience members wiping away tears, perhaps in their own reflection on the reminder of what is important in life. As daughter Liz says early in the piece, “because she is my mum”. It’s a short but prevailing proclamation upon which the show’s premise so perfectly hangs, leaving audiences subdued upon exit from the theatre, weighed by the profoundness and performances just experienced in premiere of this remarkable piece of work.

Room to play games

The Eisteddfod (Room to Play Independent Theatre)

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

March 14 – 24

Just as is the case where name recognition means that some novels have author names appearing bigger than the book’s title, so too when promotion of a play’s title includes the playwright’s name, there is implication that the show is going to be something special. This is the case with “The Eisteddfod”, the first play from multi-award winning playwright Lally Katz, being presented by Room to Play Independent Theatre at Metro Arts. Not only is Katz the voice behind the work but the occasional narrator that begins the play with a voice over prologue of sorts introducing its two brother and sister characters, Abalone (Matthew James French), Gertrude (Madison Kennedy-Tucker).

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The children spend their quiet lives playing make-believe games, shielded from the world by protective parents. When, in their late teens, their parents are killed in a freak accident, the siblings are left grief-stricken with only their games of pretend as comfort for their agoraphobia. The parodies of suburban dreams and nightmares takes the audience through to adulthood, where Gertie desires escape from their childhood trauma. While her interest in imaginary worlds is waning, Abalone remains passionate about amateur dramatics and so asks Gertrude to be the Lady Macbeth to his Macbeth at The Eisteddfod, first prise for which is a trip to Moscow. All the while, their dysfunctional fantasy world is enacted, often in the crudest of terms with erotic games, domestic violence suggestions and memory of a suicide, as Gertrude fantasises about a masochist lover. It is an illogical story of characters out of harmony with their own existence, which is reflected in stagecraft with impressive lighting awashing the action in a spray of colours and adding intimacy to scenes conducted with only the touch of torchlight.

Clearly the dark, comic fantasy is theatre of the absurd. Though its response to the destruction and anxieties of the 20th century through question of the nature of reality and illusion, has clear currently climate connections, absurdist theatre is still an acquired taste so its just under an hour running time is perhaps the perfect length to maintain audience engagement given its challenging content. Indeed, the success of this show rides on the intelligent choices made in all areas of the production, on and off stage. While the confronting themes are tempered by comic moments, there isn’t a lot of relief. Gertrude and Abalone’s world is not an easy place to visit, but experience of it is enriched by the expressive performances of Tucker and French, which do justice to the multifaceted layers of their complex characters. Tucker projects Gertrude’s tortured yet optimistic nature, at once childlike and old-soulful and French is a brother full of bravado in the precision of the physicality of his performance.

“The Eisteddfod” is a well-produced piece of theatre, though it will not be to everyone audience member’s tastes. For the theatre-curious, however, its journey will result in much post-show discussion about Gertrude and Abalone’s broken, suburban world, because rather than giving answers and telling audiences exactly how to respond, it challenges them to find their own way through the work.

Return to youth

This is Our Youth (Underground Broadway and Between the Flags)

Metro Arts, The Lumen Room

February 28 – March 4

Metro Arts’ converted cinema space The Lumen Room is not the most comfortable theatre for a long show. And “This is Our Youth” is far from concise, especially in Act Two when its conversations circle back over familiar dysfunctional territory as its privileged barely-beyond-teens bicker in between the drug consumption of their consequence free existence. But it is a show worth seeing for its thematic resonance and superb performances.

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The story shares two days in the lives of three disillusioned youth as they run amuck in a New York City studio apartment. Warren (Jackson McGovern) has stolen $15,000 from his father, which captures the attention of his selfish and intimidating drug-dealing not-really-friend Dennis (Mark Hill), but provides Warren with the means to impress the quite clever and articulate Jessica (Bellatrix Scott).

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It is the Reagan era 1980s we are told. We see touches of it in the set, but don’t always hear it in the dialogue. What we do hear, however, are the impressive cast accents. Thanks to Dialect Coach Melissa Agnew, the actors’ New Jerseyish twangs of diphthong vowels cements the show in place and add to its credibility.

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The performers are all excellence. Hill gives Dennis an almost desperate, swaggersome arrogance, evident down to the smallest physical nuance and McGovern is touching as his dispirited ‘friend’ and whipping boy Warren so that we feel for him, his problems and his repeated blows, despite his privilege, and rejoice with him at hint of a relationship with Jessica. And Scott gives the fashion student a charismatic complexity as she moves from self-conscious, nervous interaction with Warren to political provocation with her observations about the nature of youth and its role in defining your later self. Indeed, it is a credit to both the script and its realisation that its clever allusions to political commentary of our time are more subtle than the usual written-to-order type of late.

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In Act One, particularly, “This is Our Youth” offers up a razor-sharp comedy-drama about these three unsettled youngsters, who would now be (as it is observed in Director Tim Hill’s program notes), a privileged group of powerful while men today. The engagement it brings is not just through the quality of its performances, but its ask of great questions around these notions. Indeed, its success comes from it examination of the inherent questions in the work and interrogation of them in a way that only theatre can. As such, this deceptively-simple story of 1980s slackers deserves to be seen.

 

Counterpilot cleverness

Spectate (Counterpilot)

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

November 7 – 18

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Those who have encountered Counterpilot’s collective of interdisciplinary artists previously, know that their theatre is more experience than static show. And “Spectate” is no different. The all-encompassing work is immediately intriguing as, upon entry into the theatre, audience members are met with the sight of velvet red curtains in frame of a black and white film. With sounds of Dixieland-esque tunes soundtracking, it is evocative of a time almost a century ago when Harry Houdini was a marvel amongst men.

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Through audience member headphones, we are told that we are at the show of the incredibly famous Austro-Hungarian-born American stage magician and stunt performer. The dimming light makes for a meditative start as an interior monologue is provided, describing the sensation of sitting in the theatre and typical pre-show contemplations, from practical consideration of if we missed getting a program to larger concerns like ‘what if I don’t get it?’ Through this headphoned narration, along with live projection, we are taken to the Houdini’s final, October 1926 Detroit show. We are expecting acts of magic, escapism and hopefully his vanishing elephant illusion. So the card ticks and straightjacket escape that follow are almost disappointing.

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But Houdini (a beguiling Toby Martin) is looking pale and lethargic, occasionally clutching at his sides as foreshadowing for those familiar with the circumstances of the entertainer’s death less than a week later. Indeed, the waters run black for the master of mystery, worsening as he prepares for his famous Water Torture Cell trick.

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Are we about to witness Houdinin’s death and how does this make us feel? This is what “Spectate” is really about in its challenge of the nature of audience roles as spectators. In doing so the interdisciplinary work prompts audiences to think, but also to feel in response to the beauty crafted on stage in realisation of Writer/Director/AV Co-Designer Nathan Sibthorpe’s ambition to construct a world of contemporary illusion through use of 3D printed performers, live video compositing and immersive audio. The result is both fascinating and entertaining. The layered projections of diorama and live action are not only interesting in themselves, but accompanied by the prompt of the headphoned voice inside audience heads, they assist in suspending audience experience between layers of reality and versions of truth and fiction.

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Narrative interjections occur also through cross to conversations with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and alike as Houdini pursues debunking psychics and mediums as part of his desire, as President of the Society of American Magicians, to uphold professional standards and expose fraudulent artists. There is surprise too when audience members are texted in conversation with a show’s ‘character’ and also in a final cameo-filled short film that, although quite hilarious, appears unnecessary and out-of-context.

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“Spectate” is a ground-breaking new production that engenders fascination both in experience itself and in recollection afterwards. While the immediacy given to an experience from a century ago is intriguing, its legacy comes courtesy of what it contemplates about audience membership. Even without a vanishing elephant, it is spectacularly clever on so many levels, in a way probably never seen before.

Contemporary connections

Swallow (E.G. & Metro Arts)

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

May 25 – June 3

In story, “Swallow” is about when strangers cross paths. Thematically, however, the work gives audiences so much more to contemplate. And the result is a challenging but rewarding experience thanks to the excellent execution by all involved in the production.

Hermitted in her home, Anna (Elise Greig) is in need to focus, frenetically completing self-decided projects in search for peace, yet yearning to travel to places she will never go. For her, going crazy is busy business, especially when you’ve been shut up inside for a couple of years and who said smashing things up was a bad thing anyway? In an apartment somewhere below her, Rebecca (Julie Cotterell) is recovering, both physically and emotionally, from a nasty breakup with an arsehole ex, comfortable in her pain. Then there is Sam (Helen O’Leary), who has found identity but not acceptance. While each is struggling, having been smashed up by life, in discovery of each other, they just might be able to save one another.

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The journeys of each of the three characters are fragmented, but as an audience we still engage with them, because of, rather than despite their flaws. This is thanks to the outstanding performances of all three cast members; their performances are so riveting to watch that we become invested in their stories even from the play’s enigmatic start.

Staging is sparse but detailed with jumbles of broken materials around each character’s initial space. Things are not static, however, with each character constantly moving, even when not directly involved in a scene. Lighting design builds from darkness in support of this, using shadows to create interesting shapes, which works with the appropriately evocative soundscape to create a memorable aesthetic. Everything is beautifully deliberate as character stories slowly intersect. Poetic monologues parallel and intersect through common and revisited metaphors and motifs of isolation and fragmentation of items and understandings alike, established in initial scenes before narrative interconnection is appreciated.

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Stef Smith’s writing is dense but also lyrical in is creativity and Kate Shearer’s directorial decisions are so detailed as to desire a further viewing to appreciate all of the nuances of choice, like to have fragile feathers falling as snow in reference to earlier dialogue mentions. Indeed, “Swallow” takes audiences to unexpected and unique places in its share of relevant messages around the importance of real relationships and the quality contemporary connectivity that lies elusively behind closed doors and smartphone screens.

In its clever storytelling and reminder to the person reflected in our mirrors to blink and breathe, “Swallow” provides a wonderful message for audiences to take away. Its holistic approach to storytelling and all-round excellent execution, make it a modern tale that everyone should see as reminder that theatre, like people, is not homogeneous, and is all the better for it.

Photos – c/o Nick Morrissey

Troubled travel tales

Europe Won’t Fix You (The General Public Theatre Company)

Metro Arts

May 11 – 13

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With milk-crate furniture and clothes strewn about, the initial impression of “Europe Won’t Fix You” is very much of a story associated with a student demographic. Indeed, with the lone character beginning proceedings wearing Doc Martins and overalls, and a copy of Lena Dunham’s “Not That Kind of Girl” on the coffee ‘table’ alongside a travel guide, it seems to be a show of stereotypes. And it is, beginning with her indulgent opening solo dance number to the explicit-ridden ‘I Fink U Freeky’, before moving into a clever realisation of packing for a big rite-of-passage trip to Europe.

What follows is a series of vignettes taking audiences along on the arduous to-Europe plane trip to a Berlin rave and Parisian love affair. There is no real narrative thread apart from a revisited character’s poo log, which brings with it much humour. Indeed, in many ways, it is crass at times, because that that seems to make art edgy in an undergraduate type way, and, accordingly perhaps, it is easy to appreciate its festival success, having experienced sell-out seasons at the 2016 Sydney Fringe Festival and at this year’s Adelaide Fringe. Certainly many aspects ring true as audiences watch condoms being packed in anticipation of the adventures presumably awaiting along with experience of a white winter, before the later disillusionment of the Christmas in cold-arse countries and the yearn for some green vegetable goodness as opposed to meat and potatoes … again.

Cast members work well together, particularly in relation to the physical comedy aspects, but its troublesome structure means that there is little opportunity to connect with the characters represented. Tasha O’Brien has great comic timing and gives an engaging performance, especially in presentation of some of the show’s in-your-face content. And Caity Booth is very funny to watch, especially in fleeting role as an inflexible German encountered on one character’s European travels.

Those who themselves have ever quit their job and headed over to Europe, only to return broke and broken-spirited to their parents’ couch sometimes later, will probably find much to identify with in its subject matter. While those who have toured in other ways, may look knowingly upon the twenty-something’s ambitions from the comfort of their own recollections, for this is travel, warts and all (and maybe even some other intimate diseases). Indeed, “Europe Won’t Fix You” is a cheeky take of a travel tale you won’t find on Instagram… just an account that could be told better.