Terror Australis

Horizon (Playlab)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Underground Theatre

May 19 – 29

Maxine Mellor’s “Horizon” is an intense experience… not the type of show to be enjoyed so much as provoked by. It is a sensibility that is conveyed from even before its start thanks to an ominous pre-show soundscape and the gothic shadows of a darkened stage featuring just a single white line as video backdrop to its Ford Falcon centre stage feature.

Young couple Cole (Sam Foster) and Skye (Ngoc Phan) are driving the classic Aussie car from the coast into the heart of the country to Cole’s home town to visit his ill father. What starts poetically as a classic road trip journey of mix tapes and romantic enthusiasm, however, soon devolves into a tense standoff of mindsets, with debate and discussion flaring around contemporary issues. And as we watch the pair’s relationship struggle to survive the personal secrets that emerge, we are left considering what is worth rescuing as within even this theme, the story is filled with metaphors, such is the quality and precision of Mellor’s writing.  

The multi-award winning playwright’s script touches on dark themes from with our country’s tragedies as the couple learns more than they imagine about each other, including the story behind a cassette tape as old as the car itself and the real reason behind Skye’s motivation for a holiday distraction from fighting off brainless corporate zombies as a lawyer.

A 90 minute two hander such as this can be a taxing task for its performers, however, Foster and Phan work well both in volley off each other and also in the show’s many impassioned monologues. Foster’s, early speeches, in particular, are especially entertaining, delivered with a powerful rhythm akin to a gripping slam poetry share, thanks to his vocal enthusiasm and well-used pace, pause and emphasis for effect.

It is appropriate, however, that in addition to acclamation of the performers, the car so central to the show’s action also receives applause at the play’s conclusion. Rather than alienating its audience through performing sections of the story from within its front seats, the company cleverly utilises the central piece as part of the action, inviting the audience its world through choreograph of the story’s action in, around and on top of it as it rotates on stage, without it appearing gimmicky. And it does, indeed, feature almost as another character in the drama as it transports the couple’s relationship deeper into the ramifications of brutal honesty.

Also particularly laudable is the dynamic opening scene complement of Guy Webster’s sound design, David Walters’ lighting design and Nathan Sibthorpe’s video design, in realisation of the couple’s celebration of their newfound freedom with imagined new names and outlaw identities on the run in a world gone mad. Video projections also serve to track the passage of time through show of the bush drive backdrop as day sunsets into the velvet dark of night, also contributing to its panic.

As a two-hander “Horizon” is at its core an intimate story, however, it is also one of big twists, turns and technical demands within its apparent simplicity and speak to contemporary Australia. Under Ian Lawson’s direction, it is a thrilling ride not for the faint of heart, but rather those who like their drama with a bit of terror because once you’ve seen one monster, you see them everywhere. And though Mellor may have been commissioned to pen the Playlab Theatre production pre-COVID, it still remains relevant now especially in in its touch on #metoo themes, but also in its examination of the struggles and isolation at the core of personal identity (and thus relationships), from which, like our pasts, we can maybe never really outrun.

Photos c/o – Stephen Henry

Principles at play

The Mathematics of Longing (La Boite Theatre Company, Gavin Webber and The Farm, and Suzie Miller and The Uncertainty Principle)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

June 3 – 23

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The letter i is the square root of -1, which cannot occur; it is impossible, not because it doesn’t exist as much as because it makes no sense. It is a metaphor, perhaps for theatre, but even more so for experience of “The Mathematics of Longing”, a co-production between La Boite, The Farm and The Uncertainty Principle.

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The above-mentioned imaginary number concept is played with in a scene between a physicist father (Todd MacDonald) in conversation with his daughter (Merlynn Tong) about the world of complex numbers and apparently beautiful equations. The new work comes courtesy of multi-award winning playwright Suzie Miller, who, inspired by her father’s love of maths, want us to see its formulas and equations in a more positive way. The result is a strange and poetic ‘play’ that appears full of contradictions: it is only an hour in duration, but it feels like longer and although it contains a lot of ideas, there is not much of a narrative. Its experience is similarly contentious, with opinion divided even amongst audience member groups as to its merit.

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In its examination of the possibility within uncertainty, “The Mathematics of Longing” is certainly a courageous work, and, its feature of collaborative talents, including those of Gold Coast contemporary dance company The Farm and Ben Ely of Regurgitator (composition and sound design), makes it one of great promise. However, in its mostly-talk and little action approach it does not deliver on this suggestion.

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It begins with the audience being verbally bombarded with ideas, with performers speaking at once before racing us through Newton’s three laws of motion and explaining dark matter and the ultimate, all-encompassing theoretical framework that links together all physical aspects of the universe. From there, ideas merge and a parallel story (or rather, stories) starts to come together, only not in a linear way, introducing us to the synchronicity of lovers (Kate Harman and Gavin Webber) forced together by the intensity of their respective needs and a couple in turmoil (Ngoc Phan and Todd MacDonald, who are equally excellent in their scenes together).

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Each story is based on a formula or scientific principle and later it is illustrated how, in another universe. Some resonate more than others; the theory of separation show of how a splitting couple will always be merged together is a highlight, but one that is over too quickly. And in another high-point, we are offered quick comfort in consideration of how Einstein’s most famous theory of relativity could allow souls to reach infinity. Although the development from scientific principle into story is welcome, however, it not necessarily enough to make the self-described postmodern and post-dramatic work accessible for main-stage audiences.

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Just as the space between two human beings, we are told, can be nothing or everything, this unusual project lends itself to contention. It is a physical work in many ways, featuring as part of this, a series of musical and dance moments. In some respects, the aesthetic works, with installation artist Ross Manning’s set design and Ben Hughes’ lighting uniting in moments of visual artistry to illustrate the layers to the world and our experience within it. More frequently, however, gentle soundscape strains, silences between dialogues and dance sections seem indulgent. Although it does convey a sense of how small and insignificant we are in the vastness of the universe and paradoxically how big we are in the centre of our own lives, its examination of so many theories makes for confusion rather than clarity.

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“The Mathematics of Longing” is an intellectual work full of big considerations about construct vs reality concepts and what may be beyond what we know, and like imaginative algebraic numbers, it won’t make sense to all audience members. I don’t get maths (few English teachers do) and after seeing “The Mathematics of Longing”, I still don’t get it, let alone understand its ‘beauty’, yet I can appreciate that this exists for some. Hopefully, those willing to take the leap of faith in seeing this show will fall into this category.

The delight and unite of theatre

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Theatre-going may beget theatre-going, but the end of year does provide welcome respite to relax and reflect upon the bevy of brilliant shows that Brisbane audiences have be privileged to experience in 2016. As for me, from 150 shows seen, there have been many favourites, including:

  1. The Tragedy of King Richard III (La Boite Theatre Company) – The fast and furious story of rampant revenge that we thought we knew is an evocation of the play, the man and ourselves thanks to the hard questions asked by Daniel Evans and Marcel Dorney.
  1. Disgraced (Queensland Theatre presenting a Melbourne Theatre Company Production) – Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning intense and absorbing drama which fearlessly puts contemporary attitudes towards politics, race and religion under the microscope in exploration of freedom of speech, political correctness and the prejudices towards Islam, even in the most progressive cultural circles.
  1. True West (Brisbane Powerhouse, Troy Armstrong Management, Thomas Larkin and Annette Box) – Sam Shepperd’s modern classic which sees two desert-dwelling brothers go head-to-head, kicking and thrusting towards physical and psychological showdown in desperate pursuit of the American Dream.
  1. The Secret River (Queensland Theatre presenting a Sydney Theatre Company production) – Kate Grenville’s story of two families divided by culture and land on the banks of the frontier Hawkesbury River in the early nineteenth century.
  1. Bastard Territory (Queensland Theatre) – A complex, beautiful story about people that transports audiences back in time to the swinging ‘60s PNG and the bohemian days of 1975 NT, before settling in 2001, as Darwin sits poised for political progress.
  • Best performance – Thomas Larkin as Lee in True West (Brisbane Powerhouse), Ngoc Phan in as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire (La Boite)
  • Best staging – Madama Butterfly (Opera Q)
  • Best lighting – Snow White (La Boite, Brisbane Festival)
  • Best AV – The Wider Earth (Queensland Theatre)
  • Most interesting – Disgraced (Queensland Theatre, QPAC)
  • Best New Work – The Tragedy of King Richard III (La Boite)
  • Best Shakespeare – Twelfth Night (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)
  • Best musical – The Sound of Music (Andrew Lloyd Webber, David Ian, John Frost and The Really Useful Group)
  • Best cabaret – California Crooners Club (Parker + Mr French, Brisbane Festival)
  • Best dance – Huang Up & Kuka (Brisbane Powerhouse, WTF)
  • Funniest – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Lyric Hammersmith and Filter Theatre – UK, Brisbane Festival)
  • Most fun – Titanic The Movie The Play (Act/React, Brisbane Comedy Festival)
  • Most moving – The Secret River (Queensland Theatre)

Although many of my personal highlights have been international acts, often featuring as part of festivals, these cultural feasts have also delivered some excellent locally-themed theatre amid the internationalisation on offer. It is the delight of theatre that events such as these can not only inspire creativity, but also unity in cultural participation. Hopefully 2017 will see more people realising theatre’s accessibility, because it is not about a specialist language or privileged perspective but rather just people telling a story or sharing a way of looking at the world… things that are at the core of our essential humanity.

Streetcar satisfaction

A Streetcar Named Desire (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

October 15 – November 12

Tennessee William’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” is an epic work. With the addition of musical accompaniment and interludes, La Boite’s version of the classic pushes out to almost three hours, which becomes a big ask as Act One languishes towards its 90 minute conclusion. Although it competes with opening scene dialogue, the music (featuring vocals by Crystal West) adds to the sultry atmosphere of Louisiana featuring as it does original songs composed by Guy Webster, mixed with more well-known numbers, such as (like in the 2014 London revival) a perfectly placed ‘Wicked Game’…. But it seems like an unnecessary addition to a work that already sizzles with laden dialogue and a tension-filled Act Two in which its performances ultimately prevail in ensuring audience absorption.

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The Pultizer Prize winning story begins with the unannounced arrival of faded and damaged but well-put-together southern belle Blanche Du Boise (Bridie Carter) from Mississippi to stay with her younger sister Stella (Ngoc Phan) and Stella’s thuggish husband Stanley (Travis McMahon) in their claustrophobic two bedroom New Orleans flat. Uncomfortable in the surrounds of her sister’s low-rent address, delicately-mannered English teacher Blanche talks feverishly, self-obsessively and insensitively about Stella’s circumstance. ‘I’m not going to be hypocritical, I’m going to be honestly critical about it!’ she says, along with explanation that she has left her employment mid-term, at the suggestion of her school superintendent, due to exhaustion induced by her nerves. From the outset, however, Stanley suspects that there is more to Blanche’s story and sets upon a quest to cruelly expose her genteel façade.

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The sense of a stifling New Orleans abounds. The raked stage is canvas to the rhythmic shadow of a languidly rotating ceiling fan and Guy Webster’s sound design regularly sends streetcars clattering past, even during intermission, which is a nice touch. Ben Hughes’ lighting design adds an initial warm to the two basic rooms of the Kowalski home, but also later lyricism to Blanche’s dreamy-blue, attempted seduction of an uncomfortable young man who comes to the door to collect money for the paper, turning the text’s evocative stage directions into a distinct experience.

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All of this play’s iconic characters have their flaws and the diverse, talented cast brings them all to well-formed life, even down to their distinctly Southern accents, thanks to accent and dialect coach Melissa Agnew. La Boite newcomer Phan is excellent as a Stella torn between her diametrically opposed husband and sister, but ultimately in love an loyal to Stanley and his coarse behaviour. And her anguish in the final scenes is heartbreaking.

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Self-delusional and highly-strung Blanche is one of the great tragic figures of the modern stage and Carter certainly does her justice in a portrayal that captures both her breezy pretension and desperate loneliness and hurt. Under Todd Macdonald’s direction, this increasingly unkept Blanche is both fragile creature and feisty fighter, and Carter conveys each layer perfectly, especially in her doomed monologue to sensitive suitor Mitch (Colin Smith) about her desperate desire for magic.

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McMahon brings a rough primitivism to the (by his own admission) unrefined, simple and straightforward Stanley, both in his rowdy poker game participation and by bellowing ‘Stella’ into the night after striking his wife and causing her to flee upstairs to apartment building owner Eunice (Parmis Rose). Although initially more bogan than brutish, he brings personality and clarity to the text to illustrate Stanley’s contrast to Blanche’s demure demeanour, making some early lines feel as fresh as if they are being said for the first time.

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And from his first brief line in Scene One, Smith is simply lovely as the gentlemanly Mitch, more sensitive than Stanley’s other poker friends, obliging to Blanche’s every vain whim, despite never having gotten more than a goodnight kiss in return.

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“A Streetcar Named Desire” is a tough play of complex relationships and almost 70 years after it was first written, it still leaves audiences with much to consider in assessment of whether it is Stanley or Blanche herself who is more to blame for Blanche’s ultimate ruin. In addition, the relevance of its themes of domestic violence and mental health issues, so problematic in our modern society, makes it resonate strongly. By adding a little humour to its ultimate despair, this production makes it an accessible, albeit lengthy show, sure to leave audiences satisfied.

Photos c/o – Dylan Evans