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.

Crouch contemplations

ENGLAND (Nathan Booth, Matt Seery & Metro Arts)

Metro Arts, Gallery

April 19 – 29

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In a post-show Q and A session to his 2013 Brisbane Festival show “I, Malvolio”, Tim Crouch described his advocacy of asking new questions about the artform through increasing consciousness of the alert and alive relationship between audiences and theatre makers, united in a live situation. Those who saw Crouch’s “An Oak Tree” at the Bille Brown Studio in 2011 will expect no less from the experimental theatre maker, given that work’s failure to play by ‘the rules’ by including a guest actor, without script familiarity, being guided through the performance by stage directions fed through an earpiece.

This is the world of Tim Crouch and of his 2007 work “ENGLAND”, which rejects typical theatrical conventions and, instead, invites its audience to help create the work. Perhaps as a consequence, the provocative text has only ever been performed once before in Australia. But this only makes the Queensland premiere of the tricky work from Nathan Booth and Matt Seery, the Hamish and Andy of the Brisbane theatre scene, all the more impressive.

Certainly there are easier challenges in theatre than taking on a show like “ENGLAND”. The script allows for anything; lines are not allocated to performers and there are no stage directions or indications regarding set or lighting. Yet, in Seery’s directorial hands, the scatter becomes a sophisticated performance work that starts as a gallery tour before becoming so much more in its look at life and impending death.

The story is well suited to the intimate venue of Metro Arts’ Gallery and the staging is well managed to account for the limitations of the space, which sees the action move from Brisbane to London and from a clean-lined gallery to a shabby sitting room. It begins with two attendants who share a duologue in talk of a wealthy art-dealer boyfriend in need of a heart transplant and as guide of the audience through a contemporary art exhibition (the work of artists Amelia K Fulton, Brigid Holt, Dana Lawrie, Charlie Meyers and Damien Pasquale), with comment on the works’ amazing colours and how art should be for all. As the audience is urged to look at the lines and colours and even the wood of the floor, we are reminded of the beauty of life’s little details, even as description moves to what’s on the walls of a doctor’s surgery and then in the search for health at any cost. It is a work of two acts at either end of the stylistic spectrum and yet it works, more because of, rather than in spite of, its contrasting forms.

Give the site-specific nature of the work, audience members should aim to arrive early to wander around the gallery until the work begins with performers Barbara Lowing and Steven Tandy parting the crowd to take command of the space. A two-hander from Lowing and Tandy is weighted with expectation; each brings a wealth of experience to the show and, accordingly, in their hands, the dialogue flows easily without overwhelming the delicate nature of the production.

Lowing is a tour-de-force on any stage and Tandy gives a finely balanced performance in counterpoint to the vulnerability and strength of her presence. Indeed, it is testament to the craft of both the artists that they are at most captivating when seated in a conversation of sorts for second half of show, when travel is made to an unnamed country to thank the widow of a heart donor with a gift of a valuable painting. The ambient sound design and intricately composed score, are similarly memorable in their frame of the story’s essential emotions.

“ENGLAND” is a wonderful show of little details and big thematic ideas about, for example, the effect of art and what constitutes its meaning. Much like last week’s Australian Stella Prize annual literary award winner, “The Museum of Modern Love”, it captures art’s ability to ‘wake you up, break your heart and make you fearless’.

The creators of the exhibition/performance/gallery tour that is “ENGLAND” have crafted something very special from its most arbitrary of guidelines. At once beautiful, powerful and devastating, it is an affecting and rewarding theatrical interaction, layered with meaning for contemplation and conversation about the difference between looking and seeing and the need for art in all its manifestations to enrich, sustain and lift us out of life’s hardships.

Getting Jarrod Duffy

Jarrod Duffy is Not Dead (Applespiel)

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

April 20 – 29

Have you ever had someone in your life at one time, who you lost contact with?

Someone you cared about.

How many years has it been since you’ve seen them?

Do you know where they are now?

If you did, what would you do?

Have you ever had someone who just…vanished?

It’s Wollongong, 2010 and two weeks before performing in an honours show, Jarrod Duffy, friend and member of the performance collective, Applespiel, doesn’t show up for a rehearsal. He’s disappeared, leaving behind the furniture at his house and no answers from phone calls, emails and Facebook searches.

“Jarrod Duffy Is Not Dead” is the story of that disappearance and Applespiel’s hunt to find their missing friend. It is important to know this essential premise before attending the show, because of the poignancy it brings to the photographs that are shared on-screen at its beginning as audience members sit in thought of the memories that lie behind the images and the emotions evoked by their recollection. Those most affected, however, are those who lost a friend, the members of Applespiel who begin the podcast section of the show with overlay of dialogue about Duffy’s character.

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This initial section is particularly engaging in its authentic recreation of an episodic series, utlitising the genre’s features and respecting its usual structure. As it progresses from recollection of ‘good times’ antics, last conversations, speculative concerns for his safety and possible hints to the idea of leaving, to memories of the initial days after his first disappearance, it becomes clear that ‘memory is shitty’, allowing the audience to share in Duffy’s friends’ frustrations at initially dismissing his disappearance with stories of his flakiness and of how over time, blurred memories create amalgamated stories and even more uncertainly. But things are not all as they seem, as the audience realises in a second half that sees standup, song and appearance of the titular Duffy c/o cardboard cut-outs and then some.

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As essentially a show of two halves, “Jarrod Duffy is Not Dead” is an ambitious work of anthropological storytelling that shows how sometimes you need to tell a story to have others ‘get it’. The resulting exploration of truth is both complex and compelling as we are posed questions about the meaning of ‘normal’, when a story exists and the need for narrative closure.

There is audience manipulation around original premise with its mention of figures of long term missing persons and the notion of bystander apathy, but deliberately so. As such, the show represents the fundamental nature of Metro Arts’ programming and championing of contemporary arts practice. As a part theatre, part live podcast show, “Jarrod Duffy is Not Dead” is far from a typical theatre experience. But that is its appeal. Its blend of live action and digital imagery is sure to give audiences much to talk about in terms of its artform as much as its message, provoked by its evocative final question of ‘do you get it?’

Playing with political power

Spendour (Now Look Here)

Metro Arts, Sue Brennar Theatre

March 29 – April 8

While civil war rages outside in a snowy Eastern European-ish country, four women from very different backgrounds are bunkered in a lavish drawing room, waiting for a dictator to return home. As things deteriorate outside, so too does their civilised cordiality. There is an intensity to the tension that results as the dictator’s wife Micheleine (Pip Boyce) awaits her husband’s return, in the company of her supposed best friend Genevieve (Luisa Prosser), British photojournalist, Kathryn (Kerith Atkinson), who has arrived to photograph Micheleine’s husband, and her sly interpreter Gilma (Ngoc Phan). As they wait, they drink chilli vodka, eat oranges and talk … and things unravel.

Mutual mistrust and misunderstanding aside, however, there are still many moments of comedy as respite to the friction, which make Abi Morgan’s “Splendour” such a memorable audience experience of privilege and power. Unfamiliar with the language, Kathryn has to reply on Gilma, whose deliberate mistranslations make for many of the early laughs. Then the opportunistic interpreter begins to pilfer from the opulent surroundings, stuffing her pockets with everything from china teacups to children’s movies.

Micheleine carries a regal confidence and patronising demeanour in contrast to her modest friend Genevieve. And Boyce and Prosser play the dynamic to perfection. Boyce is particularly impressive in her stoic realisation of what awaits once the revolutionaries reach her, and esteem about being ‘history under their noses’. These are all strong women in their own different ways and it is wonderful to see a play that gives them a stage unto themselves. Although seemingly stereotypical, under Kate Wild’s direction, all are multifaceted, real and interesting to watch.

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We never see the city that is being seized by revolution, nor is the country specified, which evokes some audience frustration, because this is a show that leaves you wanting to know more about its everything. It is a demanding but riveting experience, enhanced by its simple staging and stark soundtrack of haunting piano sounds. Its fragmented structure, too, provides much fascination as different perspectives are offered on the same events and characters reveal their inner thoughts and shifting emotional perspectives through interior monologue asides, almost as a running commentary on the action.

“Spendour” is an intricate and complex piece of storytelling. Indeed, it is a bold, beautifully-realised play, enhanced by some stellar performances. Its commentary about the fallibility of power is made all the more engrossing by its fractured form and claustrophobic feel, meaning that after some initial confusion due to translations when all dialogue is English, its dramatic 90-minute journey flies by despite being a slow burn of strained relationships and political uncertainty.

Common cargo

Cargo Club (Centre for Australasian Theatre, Darahrouge, Brisbane City Council, Metro Arts)

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

January 31 – February 18

walkway.JPGSometimes a show is so unique that review words can do little to aptly describe the reality of its shared experience. From the first moments of entry into the Metro Arts Sue Brenner Theatre via its alongside carriageway of welcoming performance artists, “Cargo Club” presents an enriched multi-artform celebration of culture and tradition in its every nook and cranny.

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The work, which is presented in collaboration between North Queensland’s Centre for Australasian Theatre and West Java’s Darahrouge as part of the BrisAsia Festival, sees a host of international performers welcoming audiences to the immersive exploration of global themes and personal experiences. And, as is so often the case with Metro Arts works, the result is interesting rather than potentially pretentious.

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As artists move from interacting with the audience (and each other) to performing representation of personal and historical cultural experiences, there is humour and pathos to the multiple dialogues. Stories of colonisation, migration and transformation are unpacked as the performers unload their cargo.

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But alongside confronting stories from neighbouring West Papua, including of youth taken to Kokoda and reminders of our nation’s own Indigenous shames, is an upbeat welcome number and many moments of comic irony, including a memorable rap outlining white privilege.

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Immersion is multi-faceted, as music, monologues and dance occur around audience members who are scattered around the seating and usual stage area. The result is an absolutely unique experience, not only in comparison to other shows but even to other audience members. Although it is initially a fragmentary experience, without a traditional, linear plot, sense can soon be made of its inter-connected threads and overall message.

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And there is just so much to look at, packed as the space is with intricate art works, interesting installations and a makeshift musical station. And then there are there is the intricacy of its inventive costumes, complete with their own symbolism regarding, for example, notions of justice.

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props 2.JPGPerformers have multiple costumes during the show’s duration, all of which as wonderfully detailed. Indeed, everything is creative to the extreme, with lush lighting evoking emotions as much as practically facilitating aspects such as Asian-inspired shadow play.

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“Cargo Club” is an aesthetic feast for active exploration, which alone makes it worthy of the price of admission. However, more than this, its post-modernist techniques make it is a provocative, politically charged journey through the intergenerational impacts of colonisation, migration and globalisation that not only reminds of privilege but shows that a common language is not required to join in art.

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Scaffolding social issues

Flaunt

Metro Arts, The Studio

April 13 – 16

Like a sci-fi Laura Palmer (that’s a reference from the ‘90s television show “Twin Peaks” for readers under 40), Amelia Stokes begins her performance in Claire Marshall’s “Flaunt” wrapped in plastic, atop a scaffolded, raised platform with perspex floor. Nearly naked, she is brought down to the stage proper by the show’s other performers Essie Horn and Courtney Scheu, presented in fem-bot forms to a futuristic soundscape of metallic breaths and repeated words like ‘freedom’. It is an evocative introduction to a work whose exploration of gender construction covers topics such as sexuality, power and the representation of the human body in popular culture.

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Under the scaffolding are layers of floor runners and as each on is rolled back another dynamic is revealed, taking audience members through a range of chapters that step back in time to eras of the 1900s, 1950s and 1970s. Then there is the standout ‘80s number, complete with shoulder-padded suit jackets and a pumping Yazoo musical accompaniment as one of the women actually makes it back atop of the perspex glass ceiling only to ensure the others are pushed back from their competitive attempts to also ascend. This morphs into a second-to-last metallic floor runner into which the dancers are narcissistically drawn in admiration of themselves and their shoes in story of today.

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Whether fluid in femininity or in more masculine moments, the dancers are entrancing in their strength and controlled movement. As Stokes is initially manoeuvred about as if she is a doll, there is a significant showcase of skill. Indeed the dances are quite superb, especially in their synchronicity, even when occupying the stage’s different levels. And their transition between eras is seamless, thanks to some simple but effective costuming choices, added to their black short and crop tops bases. The accompaniment of a dynamic and engaging array of sounds and social issue commentary (including cake recipes and the words of academia alike), a thrilling musical soundtrack, exciting choreography around the scaffolding and its parts, and comments about empowerment, make “Flaunt” a show not to be show to be missed.

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Photos – c/o FenLan Photography

Pensive Pinter

The Lover and A Slight Ache (Now Look Here)

Metro Arts, The Studio

March 8 – 19

Following the success of last year’s production of “The Seagull”, Now Look Here presents two plays by Harold Pinter to take the audience on two very different journeys through the essence of the work of one of last century’s most influential playwrights.

The more light-hearted of the pieces, “The Lover” focuses on the pretence of properness, and fear and jealousy within commitment. While Sarah (Kerith Atkinson) and Richard (Daniel Murphy) appear to be happily married, behind their facade of propriety, lies frank acceptance of infidelity, soon revealed to be a fantasy role play.

The work is filled with the volleys of witty dialogue, punctuated by typical Pinter prolonged pauses afforded by Kate Wild’s indulgently languid pacing, making for a marriage in which both parties are more believable than in their fantasy roles. Atkinson, in particular, is poised in her portrayal of Sarah. Her charismatic presence carries each scene and her comic timing is spot on in banter with Murphy.

lovers.jpgChristine Felmingham‘s pastel lighting hues paint a delicate design picture. Staging is functional, setting the piece in time as much as place, and Penelope Challen’s costumes effectively serve as reflection of the intended era of marital conservatism in which all is not necessarily as it seems. In combination, the elements all serve to paint an appropriate initial portrait of life in Pinter’s pensive world.

Less elaborately staged is the second of the night’s one act plays, “The Slight Ache”, appropriate so given its origins as a radio play. Transferred to the stage play format, however, the work is somewhat unsatisfying, despite the best efforts of the cast.

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It begins with a conversation between middle-aged Edward (Daniel Murphy) and his wife Flora (Kerith Atkinson) in a country garden over breakfast. Befitting his years as an essayist, Edward is eloquent even in his dithering obsession with ordinary trivialities such as garden plants. But all is not as it seems, with a silent, sinister Matchseller lurking at their garden gate. As the morning morphs into afternoon, Edward becomes increasingly suspicious and Flora urges the stranger into their home for interrogation by her husband.

What follows is a series of increasingly unsettling monologues from Edward, met only with silence from the Matchseller. It is a silence and unresponsiveness filled with assumptions in move towards the play’s final moments when the mysterious Matchseller prophetically trades places with Edward. Clearly there is a metaphor for the taking from amongst the piece’s beautiful writing, however, it is not entirely clear as to what it is. With little visual interest to maintain audience engagement, it is hard work to decipher, in stark contrast to the double-bill’s initial piece.

Atkinson again is skilled in her performance, showing a touching compassion in her one sided conversation of urge for the man to join her inside the house and then upon taking the stranger’s arm to tenderly lead him along. As the mute Matchseller, Zachary Boulton is initially vulnerable and then threatening. When after much silent standing, he eventually takes seat to face the audience, he expresses volumes through only his eyes.

Pinter’s work can be comic or dark, such is the versatility of his drama. In “A Slight Ache” and “The Lover”, Now Look Here presents audiences with both. By once again placing the actor and the playwright at the centre of their work, they have taken audiences into the essence of these classic of the stage and their questions about the complication of life.

Photos c/o – https://www.facebook.com/NowLookHereTheatre