Restrung release

Killing Music (Topology)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre 

October 15

Brisbane’s Restrung Festival offer of three days of exhilarating music performances, visual art, workshops and conversations offers a valuable opportunity to showcase the city’s celebrated and emerging talents in bespoke events, unique collaborations and bold new works. It only seems fit, therefore, that its program includes a show from Topology, one of the country’s finest contemporary ensembles whose original, innovative theatrical performances have been showcasing their work since 1997.

“Killing Music” serves dual purpose; it both offers a collective post-2020 release and prompts a renewed, optimistic energy, and this is reflected in its setlist. After a moving Welcome to Country by Aunty Delmae Barton and William Barton, things kick off with the excitement of the show’s electronica-esque title track. In what then follows, the group’s distinct sounds feature in an evocative mix of piano, strings and sax, made all the more appealing by the intimacy of its New Benner Theatre staging, which allows us to experience that talents of  Principal Artists John Babbage (composer/saxophone), Robert Davidson (composer/bass) Christa Powell (violin), Bernard Hoey (composer/viola) and also Liam Viney on keyboard, up close.

Iconic previous works from the indie classical quintet’s extensive repertoire also features throughout, however, it is an eclectic mix of numbers and surprising combinations of genres that ensures a nice balance between considerations for the heart and mind as we are in-turn challenged, uplifted, entertained and reassured by its landscapes. In the necessary interests of light and shade there’s a strings-heavy version of the Saints’ punk anthem of alienation, ‘(I’m) Stranded’ and also laid-back instrumental and easily-recognisable sounds of a ‘tortured remix’ tribute to Cold Chisel’s ‘Cheap Wine’, entitled ‘Whinging Tweet’, double definition style. Meanwhile, the glorious angry energy of Julia Gillard’s impassioned misogyny speech set to classical music, as featured in “Unrepresentative Swill”, is nicely balanced by the essential wistful sadness of John Babbage’s ‘Lost at Sea’, bedded on a slew of slow meditative piano and string sounds. And it is always lovely to revisit previous Topology experiences such as ‘Static’ from the group’s 2014 ‘70s instrumental opera ‘Share House’.

The specially-curated collection of Topology tunes that is “Killing Music” is likely to be the group’s final show in Brisbane this year, and, as always, it certainly leaves audience members awaiting what the innovative collective will turn their creative attention to next. In the meantime, however, Killing Music is now available for streaming or as physical CD through the group’s website.

Making men

This Ain’t No Pussy Show (Kate Harman & Toby Angus)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

September 16 – 18

From its title alone one could easily suspect that “This Ain’t No Pussy Show” is going to be a down-with-the-patriarchy type of feminist manifest. But the world premiere Brisbane Festival show from Kate Harman and Toby Angus reveals that it’s actually a lot more nuanced than just this. (The ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ Cure music poster should have given it away that this is instead a show about the making of men.)

We begin pre-show with Metro Arts’ New Benner Theatre transformed into a teenage boy’s bedroom. Within its beanbag untidiness is Toby (Toby Angus), a 16-year-old about to be interrupted from his Xbox by his mother Kate (Australian dancer and choreographer Kate Harman), who isn’t really his mother we learn later as more of the shows premise about how to navigate growing up as a boy is unpacked. The complicated navigation though the show’s provocative theme of gender equality requires some guidance, so first we are given a road map of how the how long show shall proceed via a dance break, big reveal and a phallic segue.

Dance features heavily in the highly physical show, providing many of its highlights as Harman and Angus dance together and against each other in realisation of its themes. Anna Whitaker’s dynamic composition and sound design also helps with the creation of some memorable moments such as Harman’s ‘Killing in the Name’ rage against the machine. At the core of her frustration as a mother is knowing how to parent a boy in the current social and political climate. And in this regard, there are few answers provided. Indeed, rather than giving answers the show inspires questions about how to make Kate a better parent, such as if she should teach her son to fight and it there are dangers to validating his vulnerability.

Under the direction of performer Kate Harman and writer/co-director Gavin Webber, “The Ain’t No Pussy Show” reveals a nuanced approach that elevates it above many similarly-themed social issue works. The years spent on its development may have seen performer and collaborator Toby Angus grow out of his initial character type, as he asserts in one of its many metatheatre moments, but they have clearly helped in the creation of a cleverly crafted commentary on coming terms with manhood in a rapidly changing world. It’s an appropriate metaphor too given the shifting landscape that Kate and Toby must navigate together.

It is quite the ride through its 50-minute duration as through the relationship of a mother and son, ‘This Ain’t No Pussy Show’ explores everything from feminism and masculinity to privilege, patriarchy and pizza shapes. To set such powerful themes against the art from of dance, not only emphasises the urgency of its ideas, but also enhances audience engagement. An early highlight comes when Katie appropriately begins a high-energy boxing routine to the pumping sounds of Peaches’ ’Flip This’, which morphs into the two performers switching between the gendered roles being signposted. And Kate’s memorable ‘Killing in the Name’ trip off the map anger in relation to the actuality of space abundance is grittily angsty and angular in its movements.

While the show is interesting in its examination of language, it’s not always subtle in its messaging, not that it presumes to be. There is no pussyfooting around the commentary, when, for example, Toby is made to envelope himself into taking up less physical space with direction to tense up and hold everything in. But such blatancy is tempered by its many moments of humour, such as wen Toby acts out the possibilities of what Kate’s six-year-old son might be, as an accompaniment to her pondering. And Toby’s words of wisdom at the show’s end come as an endearing surprise, cementing the show’s worth as a complex, original and rewarding theatre experience.

Contemporary collision

Collision (Casus Circus)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

July 14 – 18

What happens when you mix three circus performers and three street performers? Than answer lies within experience of “Collision”, and the answer is absolutely appealing. As theatre-goers of this oft-called circus city, audience members familiar with pioneering contemporary circus company Casus Circus know to expect something special, however, the collaboration with urban street dance mover and shaker Mad Dance House, under the direction of Natano Fa’anana, takes it to all sorts of new levels.

Things start curiously, pre-show with a bunch of green grapes pedestaled amid a binge of blue lighting. The fruit becomes a playful motif that features from time to time, but doesn’t contribute much beyond its frivolity. So, it seems to be an authentic introduction to a show that doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously and thus is infectious in its appeal… along with moves leading to ‘that’s amazing” type audience commentary.

Ché Pritchard’s choreography is impressive, in both its boldness and subtly. The first of a range of short scenes starts with the ensemble of performers Ela Bartilimo, Riley Colquist, Sam Evans, Ben Garcia, Amy Stuart and Wanida Serce lined across the stage, making small individual movements before morphing into one being to animal across the space. Immediately, there is a lot going on, with restrained integration vigorous Shiva sorts of traditional Indian hand gestures and shades of sitar sounds apparent in its initial soundtrack.

The dynamic soundtrack (Music Dessign by Natano Fa’anana, Jesse Scott, Che Pritchard and Andrew Haden) heightens things from there, including with some ‘Superstition’ and Salt-N-Pepa familiarity. Truly wonderful mashups and snippet hints at familiar beats vibrantly add to the transformative effect of what is occurring on stage. The sentiment is not all one-note though, with sound and lighting combining to create an early intimate, lyrical moment in the ‘rain’ before Wanida Serce (who we saw in Pink Matter’s “The Type” last year) explodes into a vigorous dance number. And her costume is sensational! Indeed, all of the costumes are striking, while still being simple and versatile.  

“Collision” is first class in its consideration of a distinct and exciting aesthetic to match the on-stage showcase of acrobatic and athletic prowess. There is no narrative focus to the show, however, abstract as it might be, there is not denying its energy in the celebration of the performers’ physical languages. The choreography demands athleticism and the performers all rise to its risk-taking challenges, putting their bodies on the line for our entertainment.

Acrobat Amy Stuart is sensational in her provision of a slick early highlight which sees her simultaneously balancing and twirling multiple hula hoops. She also shows formidable strength and focussed control in anchor of a later human tower of the three female performers. Circus acts are all executed with precision. Ela Bartilomo’s aerial rope work and her elevated hand balance routine, in which she intertwines as one with Riley Colquist is a mix of strength, skill and beauty. Colquest is an astonishing contortionist of extreme flexibility and enticing facial expressions that tease the audience during a balancing routine upon the tallest platform heels you are ever likely to see.

Dance numbers are also appealing in their whimsy. There is a dance off to Cornershop’s ‘Brimful of Asha’ while apparently awaiting a bus (#asyoudo), and Sam Evans gives us a brilliant robotic routine, especially in rapid rewind. At one point he also astonishingly routines with just his chest and torso as instruments. Even when miming a circus performance, he is thoroughly entertaining. Ben Garcia, meanwhile, amps up the audience even more with a late breakdance show of impressive power moves, which only adds to the infectious energy of the show’s experience.

Even as individuals spin out of line to a soundtrack of frenzied static, there is still a clear sense of the performers working together in what turns out to be a perfect partnership. “Collision” is a charismatic and thrilling showcase of our city’s contemporary circus and street dance talent. And best of all, you don’t need to know a lot about dance to enjoy it, know it is good or be proud of it as a Brisbane collaboration.

Dual of Three

Anatomy of a Suicide (BC Productions)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

May 18 – 29

With concurrently played out stories across three generations of mothers and daughters, BC Productions’ “Anatomy of a Suicide” has a lot going on from the very outset of its Brisbane premiere. The locations of its stories, 1973, 1998 and 2033 are oriented by video projections above the expanse of the stage (AV Design by Jeremy Gordon), which allows opportunity to reinforce the motifs of nature that hover across all three stories of the traumatic tale by UK playwright Alice Birch.

The stories play out side-by-side, however, are far from static, switching across stage sections and also interestingly taking some scenes to the theatre’s balcony seating area as, for example, Carol (Elise Greig) surveys trees on property just bought with her husband (Daniel Murphy), unknowing of their symbolism to the generations of family to follow.

It is fragile Carol whose story to which we are first introduced in the three successive two-person scenes that orient the audience as to the character and characters of the work. She appears with barely visible bandaged forearms as the relics of a suicide attempt she keeps insisting to her mild-mannered husband John was an accident. Then there is Anna (Rebecca Alexander) Carol’s free-spirited, heroin-addict grown-up daughter trying to solicit some drugs from a doctor she knows and also a scene with Bonnie (Zoe Houghton), Anna’s guarded grown daughter doctor, stitching the hand the hand of a flirty patient (Jodie Le Vesconte).

From their first introductions, they aren’t all entirely likeable, which is one of the show’s strengths; its characters exist in all their humanity and Birch’s script never shies away from the complexity of its tough topics as we see Carol, Anna and Bonnie experience love, loss, grief, laughter and death.

As each respective woman, in each respective time, occupies her own third of the stage, the dialogue of their short, episodic scenes dances together rhythmically, colliding in synchronisation of key lines to emphasise the commonality of concepts like truth, home and happiness. Indeed, words and images recur as they web together and move in time about the space, often in accompaniment of contrasting action, as the scenes chronicle pivotal and often mundane moments in each of their lives, with Phil Hagstrom’s soundscape bleeding across the action.

Having three scenes volley back and forth makes for hard work for its audience, in initial scenes at least as we attempt to decipher identities and relationships, and appreciate the deliberately placed minor mentions, however, the 10 performers of the show’s cast maintain the demands of its pace and precision as if they are effortless. And movement is effectively blocked to invite the audience in to multi-levelled interrogation of what is owed by each generation, what is passed on, the real costs of mental anguish and consideration of where genetics might end and personal choice begin.

While all cast members give thoughtful performances, appropriately, those of the actors exploring its female characters are particularly strong. Alexander and Houghton bring commanding emotional intensity to their roles. In addition, Vesconte is particularly engaging as fisherwoman Jo, intent on breaking down Bonnie’s emotional barriers. Her intonation and patient comic timing ensures she receives most of the night’s laughs (although there is mental anguish to the simultaneously told stories, there are some moments of humour). And Triona Giles is vibrant as both the young Anna and also her forthright and inquisitive cousin Daisy.

Elise Grieg is magnificent as always. She not only displays a compelling emotional intensity, but with feathered Farrah hair, pussy bow of-the-era dress and beige boots, she very much looks the part of desperate 1970s housewife. Indeed, costumes are excellent across the board in reflecting respective eras and also characters, particularly of the three generations of distressed women.

Under Catrina Hebbard’s careful, taut direction, the stories of “Anatomy of a Suicide” soon find their independent rhythms and things move quickly through its 1 hour 45 minute (no interval) run time towards a resting place of legacy, ensuring that emerging audience questions are answered. Not only does it explore the ideas of family, mental health, love and strong women, but it dually touches on notions like the role of place in identity, giving the show an appeal beyond what may be determined from its confronting title. Accordingly, there was much for audience members to talk with each other about as leaving the New Benner Theatre, as everyone grappled with their impressions of the powerful play. One commonality, however, is its provocation and audience appreciation of the unique opportunity to experience the work, which has only ever previously played in London, New York and Sydney.

Photos c/o – Nick Morrissey 

Collective Conviction

Conviction (The Hive Collective)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

March 17 – 27

There’s something exciting about standing at the brave new world of the start of story we are told during Zoey Dawson’s “Conviction”, the final in new company The Hive Collective’s trilogy of works at Metro Arts. The truth of the statement is clear from the very start of the thematically rich and clever piece of independent theatre. It’s morning as a young woman, Lillian (Emily Burton) describes the surroundings of what we later know is her messy lounge room in Brunswick East, where she intends to write a play – an important play, an instant classic, a story that matters.

Before this, we are given an explanation of need for risk-taking to get started writing, especially when your all day can be so easily filled with distractions. As performers (Burton and Luisa Prosser, Kevin Spink and Jeremiah Wray) list through almost overlapping thoughts it’s difficult to determine their interrelationships and discovering them in forthcoming scenes becomes part of the show’s ongoing joy as the ideas interestingly blur the outlines of each section in a way that makes them easier to sink into. Indeed, it’s a clever device that threads all sections together allowing for an added depth to audience appreciation.

The divisive potential of this unconventional work is realised from its very first scene of the four performers standing on stage in darkness. This is also the initial of many times when Anna Whitaker’s sound design and Christine Felmingham’s lighting design serve as production standouts, especially in support of scene transitions. Quite different to the Collective’s earlier works, “Conviction” is risky in its dramatic structure. It’s clearly the most unconventional of three, not so set in Greek mythology, but still, like “The Bull, The Moon and the Coronet of Stars” and “Elektra/Orestes” very dynamic, thanks to Kate Wild’s sharp direction. On the way to this, however, things get quite odd and also dark at times in its dense but taut approximately 70-minutes duration.

True to its absurdist meta-theatre black comedy promise, the non-linear story goes first to colonial Australian, or farce thereof given the intentionally contrived representational character realisations. With the writer’s convict drama unravelling, all is not as it seems and not just because of its jarringly progressive and self-aware strong female protagonist who is conscious in her rejection of old fashioned cis gendered male sentiments of supremacy around women.

Aware of the big issues beyond her own story, Lillian is sympathetic to the plight of the first peoples and eager to see their stories told and all types of things that challenge our conception of historical drama. And it is here in mockery of the Australian canon (and the playwright’s own artistic ambition), where each cast member is at their deliberately melodramatic best, especially Burton who hits every note needed for maximum comic effect as the convict plot line unravels us deeper into the psyche of the playwright.

This is the strongest of sections which then shift us back to the mundane of the flat in which her partner returns from his day’s work to discover and discuss how she has spent her time and then the harsh dystopian conclusion of confronting imagery that also stems from Lillian’s writer brain, in contemplation of the journey a writer goes on trying to express themselves and what can work against it.

Things pace along perfectly until the final section of what could easily have been overly self-indulgent work about what being ‘just’ a writer means, the process of writing and the self-doubt that characterises a lack of conviction. Besides this interrogation of the creative process, “Conviction” is also about the darkness and light within us all, however, any universal themes are burdened by its daring, experimental style of independent theatre that may be challenging to audience members with preference for clearer narratives the experience of which requires less effort.

As the rollercoaster work crescendos to its conclusion, a voice over shares the creator’s hope that it all makes sense and that we understand everything exactly the way we are meant to. Clearly, The Hive Collective creatives are confident storytellers, especially in exploration of themes around the social inequality of the sexes and Brisbane audience can now only anticipate what the company might bring us next.

Photos – c/o Stephen Henry

Elektra engagement

Elektra/Orestes (The Hive Collective)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

March 3 – 13

A blackout beginning and suspenseful soundscape appropriately heightens audience senses towards The Hive Collective’s dynamic adaptation of Euripides’ classic Greek tragedy “Electra”. The dialogue of the retitled “Elektra/Orestes” also aptly begins with words in plea to the gods. They come from Elektra (Violette Ayad), a loud and passionate young woman of grand statements and drama in the search for answers. 

In modernisation of the well-known Greek tragedy, playwrights Jada Alberts and Anne Louise have the characters speaking in modern language, complete with swearing, that from the show’s opening minutes, establishes Elektra’s feelings about and to mother as she repeatedly vows to wait for her brother’s return. As Elektra is joined on stage by her sister Kyrsothemis (Tatum Mottin) and mother Klytemnestra (Caroline Dunphy), it is obvious that this is a family that has suffered a tragedy that all of its members are grieving independently.

The volatile Elektra is clearly disgusted with her mother and over time we realise the reason why she seethes with anger and vengeance as she blasts her music louder and waits impatiently for her brother Orestes (Tate Hinchy) to return from exile. Orestes was sent away to safety years earlier after Klytemnestra killed her husband Agamenmon. In the meantime, mother of the household and ruler of the people Clytemnestra has taken on a lover, the now-king Aigisthus (Marcus Oborn), who is secretly conducting an affair with Krysothemis. So when Orestes re-enters their lives to enact his forceful revenge, there is an excess of emotion that arises from conflicted loyalties.  

While the story is capably realised in and of itself, The Hive Collective have elevated its achievement through a very clever second-half reversal of scenes, where, like in Tom Stoppard’s absurdist “Rozencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”, events occur in complement to the onstage action. Even without knowledge of this structure, there is much anticipation during the required mid-show choreographed set reconstruction, which is only enhanced by Julian Starr’s vivid, atmospheric sound design fevering forebodingly to crescendo. And as we are shown this complementary other side to the story, we see some Brechtian theatre traditions as performers remain side of stage, re-contributing their initial dialogue from behind microphone stands. It is all very interesting in the way that rewarding theatre should be.

Ayad gives Elektra the passionate intensity required, however, even when lamenting, the larger-than-life character has the potential to suck all the air from the room in that Shrew-esque sort of way and Mottin stands alongside her in good stead in early scenes where she is being questioned as to her loyalty and want of a morning of a normality. And Dunphy gives Klytemnestra a strength beyond her early political rhetoric-themed dialogue and flashes of humanising vulnerability in later interactions with her son.

“Elektra/Orestes” is brutal but exciting theatre that easily engages its audience members, as evidenced by their sometimes audible exclamations and physical reactions. While its modern language may cause some comically jarring tonal shifts which detract from its essential drama, its dilemmas around justice, revenge and the if you should remain silent about things that matter to you, still resonate strongly.