More Motherland

Motherland (Queensland Theatre Company)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

April 20 – 30

Sometimes the anticipation for a show is so great that its season sells out in advance even of opening night. For those who saw the initial 2013 Metro Arts season of “Motherland”, the fact that this has happened in advance of its Mainstage season at the Queensland Theatre Company, is, in this case of little surprise, given the epic, multi-layered story’s poetry, passion and ultimate intimacy.

Katherine Lyall-Watson’s “Motherland” is a sweeping dramatic retelling of actual events, based on years of research and writing. At the core is Nell Tritton (Kerith Atkinson), whose father owned Triton Furniture Emporium in George Street). After leaving Brisbane in the 1920s to work in Europe as a foreign correspondent, she fell for and, just before the outbreak of World War Two, married the exiled Russian Prime Minister, Alexander Kerensky, before returning with him to Brisbane in search safety. During earlier exile in 1930s Paris, she has an erotic friendship with fellow (and much more accomplished) Russian poet Nina Berberova (Barbara Lowing). And finally there’s Alyona (Rebecca Riggs) who flees 1990s Russia with her son and her Australian businessman lover to Fitzgerald-inquiry focussed Brisbane.

The successful realisation of the complex three-generation story about these different but linked women requires precise direction and Caroline Dunphy’s deft hand ensures that things move fast with tight transitions between scenes. Timeframes and settings interweave and actors play multiple characters, which all add to its fast but satisfying pace. However, for some unfamiliar with Russian history key points, there may be initial confusion with regards to separation of stories and a few more strategically scattered references could have helped in this regard.

This is a story of strong women, appropriately brought to live by three talented actresses. Lowing, in particular, is captivating in her complex characterisation of the writer and academic Nina, particularly when returned to Russian in her twilight years, haunted by the ghost of her younger self. As the feisty 90-year-old with no patience for platitudes, Lowing shares both humour in her cantankerousness and humanity in her emotion. She could not shine as she does without the subtle, impressive work of Riggs and Atkinson’s compelling performance as the passionate yet controlled Nell. And then there are also Peter Cossar and Daniel Murphy, both of whom transition effortless between multiple roles in support of the work’s female protagonists. Murphy is particularly engaging as Alyona’s son Sasha, confused, dissatisfied and initially frightened when left alone in a Moscow Pizza Hut as he mother goes to defend the barricades in the city’s 1991 coup.

The transportation of audience members through the annals of history is supported by simple staging and a vibrant soundscape, effectively used in combination with spotlights to convey the fear of military threat. And lighting efficiently illuminates the silhouetted bookcase backdrop of the Russian literary world to the comparative and deceptive brightness of Brisbane.

motherland opening

“Motherland” is a sophisticated theatrical work, well-crafted to engage audiences in its intelligent and heartbreaking stories. Not only does it capture a moment of our city’s history in intriguing glory, but it also has universal appeal in its examination of notions of identity. With an accomplished cast re-united to take the audience on its emotional journey, “Motherland” anew is a monumental show that needs to be seen by those who like their theatre to encompass historical and cultural themes, and thankfully for regional audiences there is more “Motherland” to follow with its Queensland tour.

Copros, classics and close-to-home tales

The Queensland Theatre Company has announced its 2016 season, the last programmed by outgoing Artistic Director Wesley Enoch who is departing the company to take up the role of Sydney Festival Director for the 2017 – 2019 Festivals. As Enoch noted at the season launch, “we make theatre because we like to tell stories.” And what a bunch of stories he has left as the final component of his legacy… diverse stories of ambition, achievement and bravery.

season

The highlight, coming early in the year is “The Secret River” adaptation of Kate Grenville’s multi-award-winning bestselling novel that tells of the bloody beginnings of colonial Australia, when pardoned convicts clashed with the traditional owners of the land they settled along the banks of the Hawkesbury River. Coming off the back of this year’s lavish ABC miniseries and previous Sydney season, the Sydney Theatre Company co-production is sure to be a powerful, epic (featuring 22 actors on stage) experience of a work that will surely settle into the Australian theatrical cannon.

secret river

The provocative themes will continue in October’s “Disgraced” a co-production with the Melbourne Theatre Company of Ayad Akhtar’s debut 2012 play and winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The stirring drama promises to challenge notions of Islamophobia and terrorism through its intimate, intellectual Manhattan dinner party setting, (like “God of Carnage” with politics and sans the catalyst children perhaps).

disgracedSimilarly small in scale, will be “Switzerland”, in which Andrea Moor presents a thrilling re-imagining of the last days of crime novelist Patrica Highsmith (author of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and other twisted tales).

switz

At the other end of the serious scale is the bright and bold “Bastard Territory”, a co-production with Perth’s Black Swan Theatre Company about the 1960s and ‘70s bohemian lifestyle of far northern Australia and the Pacific Islands residents. With soundtrack boasting Shirley Bassey and Suzi Q, it promises to be quite the weird and wonderful ride when it features at the Bille Brown Studio as a Season 2016 Add On.

A comedy of the more classic kind will be Moliere’s “Tartuffe” (starring Darren Gilshenan who was last year seen in “Mother and Son”), a co-production with Western Australia’s Black Swan Theatre Company. The story of the titular brazen conman may have first been performed in the 17th century but promises to be sinfully brilliant and perhaps surprisingly still relevant in its attack on religious hypocrisy and fanaticism.

The season opener at The Playhouse, “Quartet”, Directed by Andrea Moor, also promises to be devilishly funny as it journeys into old age with four feisty ageing opera singers who, having fallen upon hard times, find themselves trying to come to terms with life in a retirement home by headlining a convert to mark composer Verdi’s birthday.

quartet

Fun too, will be the bantering, bickering Beatrice and Benedick, when Director Jason Karwein brings to life the classic romantic sparring of “Much Ado About Nothing”, one of the Bard’s most accessible and enjoyable comic works, when Shakespeare was ‘on his zing’, we are told at the launch. And as the prototypical but also terribly modern rom-com couple: squabbling like children until they realise they’re actually in love and fall into each other’s arms, Hugh Parker and Christen O’Leary promise to make love quite the battlefield. The addition of Ellen Bailey and Tama Maheson in paring as the more traditional Hero/Claudio couple is only added bonus, coming as they both are from some outstanding 2015 Brisbane Powerhouse performances.

much ado

Indeed, it is wonderful to see so much local talent featuring within the season. And also that it will once again feature shows true to the Brisbane experience, whether it be from across the world or around the corner. Brisbane playwright, David Burton’s new work, “St Mary’s in Exile”, to be directed by Jason Klarwein, is one of those stories that would be beyond belief if it wasn’t true, telling the tale of how, in 2009, Brisbane’s Catholic community was rocked when the Catholic Church stepped in to oust beloved priest Father Peter Kennedy from his post at St Mary’s in South Brisbane.

st mary

Motherland” is back too, moving from Metro Arts to QTC’s Bille Brown Studio, for a return season in April. This historical drama by local playwright Katherine Lyall-Watson was a 2014 highlight, telling with delicious language a trio of somewhat true stories: of Brisbane-born Nell who has travelled the world before marrying the Russian Prime Minister and helping him flee the Nazis in World War II, writer and academic Nina who quits her native Russia for Paris, only to return in her twilight years, and single mother Alyona, a Russian museum curator whisked away to Brisbane by an Australian businessman, in search of a brighter future. Both epic and intimate in its sweeping tales of different women from different times, united in the heartache of exile from their homelands, it will take audiences from the chaos of a Russian military coup, through the hell of Nazi-occupied France to a turbulent Brisbane in the throes of the Fitzgerald Inquiry.

And The Dead Puppets Society is also returning, this time for World Premiere of “The Wider Earth”, featuring local talents including Thomas Larkin and Margi Brown Ash, as well as a bevy of astonishing puppets breathing life into creatures great and small. It promises to be an extravagantly beautiful recount of the tale of scientific visionary Charles Darwin’s voyage on the HMS Beagle in The Wider Earth.

puppets

With its mix of classic and contemporary works, whimsical trips to the happiest of theatrical places and contemplation of differing opinions, the 2016 season promises to be all sorts of engagement. 3, 5 and 8 Play Packages are available now. Though if you are feeling adventurous, you could always all in to purchase the ultimate 10 Play Package!

mother

Revolution, relationships and real talent

Motherland (Ellen Belloo)

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

October 30 – November 16

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It is fitting that Barbara Lowing’s character is the first to speak in “Motherland”, given that her involvement was what initiated my motivation to see the show. And she is in fine form, immediately engaging the audience with her feisty performance as a 90 year old Russian ‘cabbage with lipstick.’ And Lowing is just one member of what is a talented ensemble cast who each give measured, nuanced performances.

Performances aside, however, what is most engaging about this work is the beauty and intelligence of its narrative. “Motherland” is an epic account. In fact, it tells three stories, set in Russia, Paris and Australia, intricately crafted together. There is the intriguing chronicle of the marriage between Russian Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky and Brisbane heiress Nell Tritton (Kerith Anderson) who lived in exile in our city of ‘Jacaranda eyes.’ There is also the story of poet Nina Berberova (Barbara Lowing) a Russian exile in 1930s Paris and Nell’s lover. And finally, bookending the play is the story of Alyona (Rebecca Riggs), fleeing to Brisbane from 1990s Motherland Russia with her son and her Australian boyfriend, only to be see him caught up in the Fitzgerald enquiry. This all initially makes for audience challenges to comprehend the multiple roles of Peter Cossar and Daniel Murphy. However, once the interconnection of the stories is established, this confusion is diminished, allowing full immersion in what is a captivating narrative.

Cultural issues don’t get much bigger than revolution, yet as what is essentially the tale of three women, the story is about much more than this. It is also shares very personal stories in examination of how historical events can shape relationships and identity and, as such, it is emotional, moving and gripping. This is due largely to the talent of Australian playwright, Katherine Lyall-Watson and it is no surprise to read that the work was shortlisted for the prestigious 2013 Patrick White Playwrights’ Award.

Staging is effective in its simplicity with a just a white doilyesque spray upon the ground and asymmetrical white frames in which characters are often frozen, much like their stories in time. Indeed, the minimalist black and white aesthetic helps in creating a work that is both enigmatic and sophisticated, and enhances the show’s appeal. It was wonderful to experience the show’s world premiere run as part of Metro Arts’ Season of the Independents. “Motherland” is a story of fascination and a moving theatrical work which showcases the strength of both Australia’s stories and Australia’s talent.