The Eyre affair

Jane Eyre (shake & stir theatre company)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

October 18 – November 9

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There is a chill in the air of the Cremorne Theatre as “Jane Eyre” begins. It’s an affair that befits the gothic terror of Charlotte Bronte’s sophisticated 1847 novel (originally published under the male pseudonym Currer Bell), represented in the stage’s steely blue aesthetic. Not only does it capture the miserable gothic dampness of the northern English landscape of its setting, but its shadows allow for unobtrusive execution of many of its cast’s multi-roles. Jason Glenwright’s lighting design is also used to great effect to later equally evoke the flickering of fire and the shadowy secrets of Thornfield Hall in this hybrid story of gothic romance.

The mistreatment of spirited orphan plain Jane Eyre (Nelle Lee) begins in earnest when as a 10-year-old she is cruelly confined to the novel’s notorious red room by her venomous aunt. She is soon shipped off to Lowood Institute, a religious boarding school for orphans, where she discovers Victorian class and gender hierarchies through the abuses of the headmaster, evolving into an educated young lady of conviction.

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This is just the start of what is an epic story so a long show and at times during Act One it feels this way, despite the considerable cut-down of the Lowood sections of the novel. However, the story’s early scenes are important to help the audience get to know Jane better to understand her plain-speaking pragmatism and righteous determination despite it being 1800’s England and, therefore, a time of strict and rigid societal structure.

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After leaving Lowood, Jane assumes employment at Thornfield Hall, the impressive yet mysterious home of Edward Rochester (Anthony Standish). As governess to young Adele (Sarah McLeod), the French daughter of Rochester’s opera dance mistress, she is given opportunity to show her compassion and soon Jane and Rochester become inexplicably drawn to each other as the dark secrets locked within Thornfield’s walls begin to unravel, forcing Jane on a journey towards commanding control over her own life. It is in this, Act Two, component of the narrative, that the production is heightened by its original music, written and performed live on stage by multi ARIA Award-winner and frontwoman of The Superjesus, Sarah McLeod.

The most astonishing thing about this “Jane Eyre”, however, is that the dedicated cast contains only four members, such is the detail that they bring to the array of characters they portray (especially the supremely talented Helen Howard). And their constant choreographed movement around the set is also impressive. The staging is deceptively complex; it looks minimal, a structure of ladders and platforms, however, it gives the actors a, dynamic space in which to showcase their craft and they utilise every nook and cranny of it over the course of the story.

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As Jane, Nelle Lee is the only actor to play just one character, although she still needs to embody both the unruly child of Act One and the later mature governess, which she does well. Her Jane is an isolated but bold and brave heroine, with care at the core of her being, seen in her consideration of Adele’s circumstances as being no fault of her own. As the mostly-silent Adele, McLeod is appropriately animated in doll-like demeanour, which adds some light-hearted relief to a show heavily weighted in expectations as much as subject matter. And while not understated, her take on the show’s madwoman in the attic, is wildly dark and terrifying, her head and face covered by her untidy hair.

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In true shake & stir style, the production maintains the integrity of the classic novel while emphasising its feminist themes. This is a fiery Jane and a fiery story, literally in an impressive feat of staging. Standish’s Rochester may be a little less commanding, but still as impatient. as his novel self, however, he is humanised so as to make the audience eager for his and Jane’s romantic relationship to succeed despite its obstacles. Authentic language and conversation between the two evokes the emotive tone and stylistic devices of the novel’s connotative language, and convey a genuine connection. As always with the company’s page-to-stage adaptations, this “Jane Eyre” not only caters for fans of the fiction, but makes the story accessible to those new to the work.

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Certainly, there is much to celebrate in this adaption by shake & stir co-Artistic Directors Nelle Lee and Nick Skubij. The stagecraft is intelligently considered, with, for example, stylised movement between characters who never really connect, adding new interest to one of the most iconic pieces of English literature. Indeed, this is a powerful original adaptation, characterised by integrity and intelligence, set to sell out and then rise from it ashes to take Brisbane’s best out in tour of the country.

Photos c/o – David Fell

Stirring up a Christmas classic

A Christmas Carol (shake & stir theatre company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

December 7 – 20

Shake and Stir’s “A Christmas Carol’ begins with a tune, the ironic ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman’ (because there is little about which to be merry for those suffering in Victorian era poverty). Still, it’s a lovely yuletide introduction, before it is interrupted by protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge (Eugene Gilfedder) and his famous humbug exclamation.

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Fast forward to Christmas Eve seven years later after the death of Jacob Marley and we see the money-lender Ebenezer again, a cold-hearted penny-pincher who despises Christmas, tight-fisted and hunched over his accounts counting his coals and cursing the happiness of others, despite being rich enough not to be miserable. In his disdain for do-gooders and desire to just be left alone, he is clearly far from merry… just ask his long-suffering clerk Bob Pratchett (Lucas Stibbard).

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After Scrooge is visited by his dead former business partner (Bryan Probets), now bound for eternity in the chains of his own greed after a life of hoarding his wealth and exploiting the poor, three other ghosts, of Christmas Past, Present and Future show Ebenezer the error of his ways. He consequently changes to see Christmas as a charitable and forgiving time of togetherness.

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Nelle Lee’s wondrous adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novella conveys a storybook feel, enhanced by the in-schools experience of many of its ensemble, which enables a craftedness of appeal for children and adults alike. At times, there is a pantomime atmosphere, not in the “he’s behind you!” sensibility of the peculiarly British tradition of winter musical comedy theatre, but rather in the all-encompassing spirit and sentiment of a traditional tale told in way that allows families to share in a theatre experience.

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QPAC’s notoriously chilly Playhouse Theatre in this instance suits the bleakness of the story’s shadowy staging and accompanying haunting soundscape. The large stage space is used to full and frenetic advantage, particularly in the flurry of early set transformations, that sees almost Escher-like creation and disassembly of sets while in use, as gothic house frames are precisely positioned to project laneways and interiors alike.

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The most highly impressive moments, however, come courtesy of the crucial design efforts of Jason Glenwright (Lighting), Chris Perren (Sound) and Craig Wilkinson (Video) in awakening the story’s supernatural forces, particularly through its ghostly visions. Although there may be a couple of frightening moments for the youngest of viewers (the show is recommended for children eight years and over and includes warning about its supernatural themes, haze, smoke, strobe effects and loud music), it is these production values that keep this “A Christmas Carol” innovatively fresh. Not everything is big and bold, however. The pathos of ‘all skin and bones’ Tiny Tim, the youngest song of Bob Cratchit, gravely ill as his family cannot afford to properly treat him on the salary Scrooge his father, for example, is captured perfectly in his ingenious representation.

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The last time I saw “A Christmas Carol” on stage, I found it bothersome that in realisation of his salvation, Scrooge sent a passing youth to buy a turkey for the Cratchit family’s Christmas meal, without giving the errand-boy any funds. Thankfully, in this show, the request is accompanied by some coins. It is but a small detail of course, but one that reflects the overall care the company takes in all of its productions, for it is the combination of these smallest considerations which ultimately group in production of such consistently high-quality work.

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Under Michael Futcher’s direction, everything about the show is tight and well-paced to maintain engagement of young and old alike. Many of the show’s hardworking cast members play multiple roles with ease. Gilfedder is perfection as the cantankerous Scrooge, both in his mostly-dour demeanour and when he excitedly transforms into a kindhearted person. And Probets is also wonderful as all four of the ghosts, often bringing an infectious sense of pantomime whimsy to his realisation of their characters. His Ghost of Christmas Past, in particular, is a jolly delight of impish, gleeful energy.

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I have never really been “A Christmas Carol” fan, apart from maybe the Muppet’s movie version (because I’m not totally heartless). Clearly, I am in the minority though; the Victorian morality tale of an old and bitter miser who undergoes a profound experience of redemption over the course of an evening, remains a classic holiday story despite being written in 1843. That this company can ignite the imaginations of the young and not-so, to regard its charm anew is a wonderful testament to their energy and spirit. Hopefully it will form part of a Christmas show ritual as audiences obviously cherish the tradition of its story and the endurance of its themes. Its tell of compassion, forgiveness, redemption and the might of kindness is made even more powerful by its humour and heart, making it maybe even better than the Muppets.

There is no better way to kick off your Christmas season than with the defining tale of the holiday in the English-speaking world, brought to magical life in a brand-new adaptation. With live musicians (Composer Salliana Campbell), yule-tide carolling, innovative video design, lavish costumes and, of course, snow, “A Christmas Carol” has something for everyone, even those who imagine themselves to be more bah humbug than Christmas Carole.

Abridged ambitions

Macbeth (shake & stir theatre company)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

January 13 – 14

Shakespeare’s most famous political tragedy, aka The Scottish Play dramatises the rise and fall of Macbeth’s ambition for power, with urging from his wife and the consequential slaying of all who are an obstacle in his path to kingship. It is one of the darkest and most complex of the Bard’s journeys with some of his most infamous characters.

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To select it for the 2017 Queensland Shakespeare Production is certainly ambitious, given that the cast (of 2016 Queensland Youth Shakespeare Festival competitors) and creatives had only six days to rehearse, block, choreograph, design and tech the work. But from the moment the show begins with Kuda Mapeza’s melodic caution that ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’, it is clear that the imaginative multi-arts exploration of the text is going to be an engaging one.

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This is an abridged version of the epic tragedy, cut down to just 75 minutes, yet still featuring all the key scenes and lines. Yet scene changes are almost imperceptible in their flow of actors, who enter from all parts of the performance space (even underneath its raised catwalks), never breaking the rhythm of the play.

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The physical theatre of its ensemble work is impressive, sitting well with its snippets of song and dance. Still, the production remains true to the violence of the savage drama and its fight scenes (choreographed by Johnny Balbuziente) are all impressive in creation of the illusion of physical combat. And there is even appearance of Shakespeare’s trademark witty innuendo in the porter scene, with Mitchell De Zwart not overplaying the bawdiness of the drunken gate-keeper’s exaggerated complaints and bawdy observations.

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Under the direction of Nelle Lee (along with Alexander Butt and Amy Ingram), Shakespeare’s language sits well in the mouths of cast members, evident particularly in the witches’ combined foreshadowing chants. Mathew Bengston gives a solid performance in the monumental role of the Scottish warrior poised at the point of possibility.

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As the ruthless Lady Macbeth, Evelina Singh is excellent. Indeed, her ‘milk of human kindness’ speech is a show highlight as she at-once conveys anger, confusion and despair along with her articulated ambivalence of gendered activity. Although the couple’s central relationship is not particularly gripping, however, this is perhaps a fault of the abridgement.

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The production’s aesthetics are impressive. A moody soundscape (from designer JP Vizcay Wilson) supports the shaping of Macbeth’s ambition in terms of the supernatural and the superstitious. And costumes offer interesting symbolism with players appearing in dark colours of contrast to the ensemble of witches, all dressed in white. While not the demotic secret black and midnight hags of Shakespeare’s imagining, the dishevelled coven convey an elemental force that is visually arresting in its grip of Macbeth as they intertwine about the stage.

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In the creative hands of a company with reputation for excellence in re-imagining the canon, like the previous Queensland Shakespeare Festival productions, “Macbeth” succeeds in bringing the Bard alive for contemporary audiences. It not only highlights the universality and ongoing relevance of Shakespeare’s themes but shows how, even in his darkest plays, there is still room for productions to make their own mark.

Photos c/o – Joel Devereux

More Mockingbird

Tequila Mockingbird (shake & stir theatre company)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

October 5 – 15

Shake & Stir’s award-winning play “Tequila Mockingbird” transports its literary classic namesake tale of racial prejudice and the law to small town, rural Australia and the result is both poignant and palpable… for while the Stanton of “Tequila Mockingbird” may be nowhere specific, it is apparent before long that its story is one that is sadly familiar in our modern experience.

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The story begins when a young Indian doctor Sameer Chavan (Shannon Haegler) relocates to the tiny town to work in the medical centre. While the its born-and-bred residents drown their unemployment sorrows in schooners at Sue’s hotel, their attitudes are more archaic than nostalgic in their throwback to times of old and the racial intolerance he experiences soon crescendos into him being wrongly accused of assaulting a young woman (Nelle Lee), who is instead the victim of abuse by her vicious boyfriend Joel (Ross Balbuziente). When the whole town turns against Sameer, lawyer Richard (Bryan Proberts) not only defends him, but attempts to protect him from the simmering social tension.

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It is a taut story whose engagement is enhanced through its delineation from chronological narrative presentation, showing the audience the true events of the night in question only in flashback as part of Sameer’s trial. And even though the violence is not enacted on stage, its effect is no less shocking.

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The aspect that engenders audience attention the most, however, is the show’s stellar performances. Reuniting under the direction of Michael Futcher, each member of the original cast is totally convincing. Nellie Lee brings depth to the role of Rachel, a woman as trapped emotionally in her relationship as she is physically in the town and Ross Balbuziente gives a powerful, intimidating performance as the abusive Joel, passively racist until under the influence of alcohol. Barbara Lowing, however, is outstanding as she brings to vivid life three diverse characters: well-meaning publican Sue (trying to increase revenue with international nights featuring food and cocktails like ‘Tequila Mockingbird’), pretentious but well-meaning busy-body Karen and, most memorably as Joel’s drunken bigot mother Trish, utterly unlikeable but also very real in her xenophobia.

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Solid as ever, like Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch, Bryan Proberts’ Richard represents morality, reason and what we all want to be, never having to rethink his position. His stern but fair attitude also characterises his solo-parenting style and there is a natural rhythm to his scenes with his mischievous son Charlie (Nick Skubij). Likewise, Shannon Haegler brings a gentle humility to the role of Sameer.

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Simple but versatile staging and impressive lighting supports the story’s different phases. While Richard’s story is softened by subdued beiges, the hyper-reality of pub politics is illuminated by vibrant neon shades. And spotlighting serves to make the court scene all the more harrowing.

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While the story remains the same, as well should be the case with an award-winning work, the 2016 show is enhanced by some nice touches of update, particularly within the earlier scenes that serve as juxtaposition to the horror that follows. Both Skubij and Balbuziente contribute much to the frivolity when, in one of their respective multiple roles, they make their own fun as teenagers trapped in a town without entertainment. There is of course, a moment when things transition from the laughter of adolescent hijinks to increasingly less-thinly-veiled racist taunts and observation of altered audience reactions is as interesting as the comments that cause it.

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“Tequila Mockingbird” is critically-acclaimed for good reason and given the current political atmosphere in Australia, its turbulent, tension-filled story is sadly now more than ever more authentic than stereotypical. Not only does it provide insight into how our nation is regarded in overseas perception, but it clearly illustrates what can happen when fear and ignorance combine unchecked. The saddest thing of all, however, is not that tragedy that the narrative outlines but how it afterwards fades into history as its rural townsfolk move on to their more usual worries of weather forecasts and rising beef prices. Hopefully, artistic works such as this will assist in ensuring that such outcomes are rendered far from reality.

Stirring up a classic

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Shake & stir theatre company is back at the Cremorne doing what they do best – braving the classics – this time embarking on a turbulent, tension-filled re-imagining of Harper Lee’s classic tale “To Kill A Mockingbird”.

Like its namesake, “Tequila Mockingbird” tells its sensitive story through the eyes of a young narrator and lawyer’s child, who is, in this case, living in small town Australia. The story is an uncomfortable one, as it records the racist attitudes of an insular community in the wake of an attack on a young woman. As blame for the crime is directed towards a recently arrived Indian doctor, the story examines the universal themes of prejudice and discrimination in a way that has more political currency than shake & stir’s previous adaptations.

With such complex themes at its core, “Tequila Mockingbird” is very much an actor-driven piece; the seriousness of the narrative requires strong performances and they are delivered by all actors. The cast features all three of shake & stir’s artistic directors, Ross Balbuziente, Nick Skubij and Nelle Lee, however, it is Barbara Lowing, who gives a standout performance as a character who is so hateable, but sadly so real.

Boldly re-imagining a story as beloved as “To Kill A Mockingbird” is a brave choice, but it is a risk quickly realised in the sobering message that lingers after the experience. Indeed, the dark story of racism and xenophobia is confronting in its modern relevance, however, it is tempered by comic character moments, which is where the company shines.

Shake & stir is an energetic, enthusiastic and talented company of ensemble performers who are particularly committed to charming youth audiences with classic texts (as seen in their Schools Productions).  In the case of “Tequila Mockingbird”, this translates into a challenging, engaging and entertaining piece of contemporary political theatre created specifically for Australian audiences.