Century’s choice

Fortunate as we have been in Queensland this year, I was able to experience exactly 100 shows in 2021 and though I am thankful for every single one of them, there are of course some that stand out as favourites.

1. The Revolutionists (The Curators)

The drama-filled French-revolutionist play about a playwright writing a play was passionate, powerful, political and full of important messaging about women’s importance in history and the fundamental role of theatre and culture in history and civilisation.

2. Boy Swallows Universe (Queensland Theatre)

More than just recreating Trent Dalton’s story, Queensland Theatre’s landmark production of “Boy Swallows Universe”, honoured the original text and transformed it as a work of its own, dynamic in its realisation and anchored around its theme of resilience.

3. Triple X (Queensland Theatre)

As the Queensland Theatre play that audiences waited a year for, “Triple X” provided a commentary on the complicated issues of gender and sexuality that was funny, honest and powerfully moving.

4. Prima Facie (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre’s production of Suzie Miller’s “Prima Facie” was a riveting 100-minute one-woman tour-de-force indictment of the legal system, appropriately acclaimed by the thunderous applause of three curtain calls.

5. Of Mice and Men (Ad Astra)

Ad Astra’s production of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” served as a poignant reminder of not only the heartbreak of its story and themes, but of how classics are classics for a reason.

6. Fourthcoming (shake & stir theatre company)  

Shake & stir theatre company’s contemporary adults-only choose-your-own-adventure romantic comedy “Fourthcoming” not only placed the course of the narrative in the audience’s hands, but provided an avalanche of non-stop laugh-until-you-cry moments.

7. The Producers (Altitude Theatre)

Altitude Theatre’s inaugural production, “The Producers” was self-aware and hugely entertaining with distinctive musical numbers and laugh-out-louds a-plenty 

8. Anatomy of a Suicide (BC Productions)

The precision with which all elements of the three consecutively unfolding stories of BC Production’s “Anatomy of a Suicide” unfold made for a powerful exploration of the ideas of family, mental health, love and strong women.

9. Elektra/Orestes (The Hive Collective)

The Hive Collective’s dynamic adaptation of Euripides’ classic Greek tragedy “Electra” was elevated in interest through a very clever second-half reversal of scenes, where events occurred in complement to the onstage action alongside the original dialogue.

10. Return to the Dirt (Queensland Theatre)

Steve Pirie’s Queensland Premier’s Drama Award winning “Return to the Dirt”, inspired by his real experiences working in a funeral home was not just an examination of what it means to die in the 21st century, but a very funny and moving night of entertainment at Queensland Theatre.

And of particular note….

Best Performance:

Glace Chase – Triple X (Queensland Theatre)

Playwright, Glace Chase was magnetic as the candid Dexi in “Triple X”. Bold but vulnerable, she made Dexi complex in her multi-dimension and identifiable in her inner conflicts, with a portrayal that added immensely to the emotional effect of the show’s unprecedented storytelling about love in the 21st century.

Oliver Childs – Our House (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

Oliver Childs not only showed a talent for characterisation in his realisation of the two Joe Caseys of the alternative realities of Brisbane Arts Theatre’s “Our House”, but his enthusiastic energy and vocal delivery worked well to encapsulate the spirit at the core of the jukebox musical’s experience.

Best Musical – Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Spotlight Theatrical Company)

It was easy to understand why Spotlight Theatrical Company’s season of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” sold out before even opening, given the company’s polished approach to all of its aspects and especially the strong performances of its main cast members.

Best Ensemble – The Producers (Altitude Theatre)

With a cast all pushing their eccentric performances to their full potential, Altitude Theatre’s The Producers was high-energy and immensely entertaining throughout.

Best Music – Creedence Clearwater Inspired Featuring Proud Mary (QPAC)

Proud Mary gave QPAC audiences a reminder of just how good live music is with an infectious 2-hour rock back to a time when the prolific Creedence Clearwater Revival was the soundtrack of a generation.

Best Cabaret – Your Song (little red company)

The little red company’s world premiere of “Your Song” was a lively throwback to rock and roll with an edge of glam in a glitzy rainbow of celebratory colour and unquestionable on-stage talent.

Cleverest – Anatomy of a Suicide (BC Productions) 

With concurrently played out stories across three generations of mothers and daughters, BC Productions’ “Anatomy of a Suicide” had a lot going on in its Brisbane premiere. As the stories played out side-by-side, switching across stage sections, episodic scenes danced together rhythmically, colliding in synchronisation of key lines to emphasise the commonality of concepts, making for a cleverly crafted provocation around ideas associated with legacy.

Best New Work – Return to the Dirt (Queensland Theatre)

While Steve Pirie’s Queensland Premier’s Drama Award winning “Return to the Dirt”, deals with a number of heavy themes, it is a well-written, emotionally rich play that offered a refreshing take on a young man’s story.

Most Fun – Our House (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

Brisbane Arts Theatre’s jukebox musical “Our House”, based on the songs of Madness didn’t take itself too seriously, including through its number of nods to band’s music videos, making its experience all sorts of infectious fun.

Funniest – Fouthcoming (shake & stir theatre company)  

Thanks to performances in the face of its changing narrative, the hilarity of shake & stir theatre company’s “Fouthcoming” never stopped.

Special mention goes to the post show-within-the-show discussion of La Boite Theatre’s “Caesar”, which provided the funniest scene of the year, through its absolutely hilarious TikTok livestream nods to the Brisbane theatre scene.

Most Thought Provoking – Locked In (Shock Therapy)

Shock Therapy’s “Locked In” provided a thought-provoking exploration of experience and impact of living with a rare neurological disorder, for sufferers and their families alike.

Best Stage Design Staging – The Revolutionists (The Curators)

Intimate traverse staging allowed audience members to become fully immersed in recognition of the stunningly rich aesthetic and, appropriately for a play set in revolutionary France, its cast of real-life fierce female characters to burst down its fashion runway.

Best Costume Design – The Revolutionists (The Curators)

Attention to detail added to the dynamism of the experience of this Curators show with lush pink and red mix-patterned ruffled and frilled costumery conveying a clear sense of opulence befitting the play’s French Revolution setting.

Best Sound Design – Elektra/Orestes (The Hive Collective)

The Hive Collective’s adaptation of Euripides’ classic “Electra” was elevated by a vivid, atmospheric sound design that both heightened audience suspense and fevered its story’s foreboding.

Best Video Design – Boy Swallows Universe (Queensland Theatre)

The blockbuster video design of Queensland Theatre’s “Boy Swallows Universe” both gave us Brisbane iconography and nooks and crannies alike, but bled its imagery into the story’s themes.  

Playing with the patriarchy

Prima Facie (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

July 14 – August 7

Opening night performances often end with a standing ovation, sometimes as a slowly staggered act of obligation. In the case of the conclusion of Suzie Miller’s brilliant “Prima Facie”, however, Queensland Theatre audience members are immediately on their feet in an acclaim of thunderous applause that lasts through three curtain calls. It is an especially significant display of praise given that the riveting 100-minute tour de force indictment of the legal system is a one-woman show.

While it may be a little play in scale, “Prima Facie” is clearly about big #metoo type of ideas. What makes it ultimately gripping, however, is the storytelling skill of its performer Sheridan Harbridge, who plays 30-something Tessa, a self-described ‘bastard defence lawyer’ at the top of her game who likes to work hard and play hard. “The law is the law,” she says and as she has been taught, this is what she trusts, above even her own instincts. It’s a mantra that has abided as a key part of her successes as a criminal attorney… successes that have seen her esteemed by the promised prestige of new chambers.

The story is told entirely from Tessa’s point of view. The clearly-confident, cool-headed criminal defence barrister has worked hard to rise from working class origins to succeed in the upper class private school world of the law, which both legitimises and humanises her as a character. Her ruthless addition to the adrenaline of cross examination of witnesses is clear from the outset as she reveals in her charismatic retelling of courtroom experience of the game of law and flashes back to early law school days, with Harbridge effortlessly assuming a range of distinct characters with which to enliven each anecdote. It’s a very funny ease in what is ultimately a confronting tale in its truths, because while Tessa is initially unfaltering in her belief that the law is a tool for justice, something life-altering happens to her that betrays the beliefs at the core of her identity.

Before we realise, the story has darkened when, Tessa is sexually assaulted by a co-worker and she is forced to feel firsthand the trauma of experience within a system that fails so many women. And as Tess reports the crime and prepares for her day in court, this time as a witness, it becomes clear just how much a woman’s experience doesn’t fit the male defined world of the law. The role of Tessa is a challenging one, not just as it brings with it the load of carrying a one-woman drama of such lengthy duration. And Harbridge shows an incredible emotional range and expert control over every performance element in her share of what is a compelling character study.

Staging in appropriately simple; Renee Mulder’s set design focuses us on a lone swivel chair on a raised platform “Mastermind” style, while projections signpost the sometimes non-linear timeline. The choreography of movements around the platform adds much to audience engagement in Tessa’s tale, especially in work with Trent Suidgeest lighting design. Blue shades steel us into the trauma of Tessa’s recollections and warms things back to the present from which her retrospect is being presented, including as she is giving her testimony in court.

The play is well-constructed and effectively paced to take the audience from the humorous to the harrowing, but also in its arc of motifs and mentions. Though mostly told through Tessa’s narration of everything that is happening, even this is authentic, with occasional focus on small observational details alongside the big. Miller’s script considers language carefully meaning there is a truth to seemingly the simplest of lines, such as the heartbreak of Tessa’s emotional contemplation of how to tell her mother what has happened. They are brought to full poignant potential by Harbridge’s faultless performance as a determined woman, tormented by attempts to almost cross examine herself in question of her own memory, as much as by those employed to challenge her credibility. And when she speaks her truth outlining all she had lost, late in the show, it is an inspiring manifesto from within her damaged sense of self.

“Prima Face” is a crafted contemporary theatre work, controlled in its tonal shifts and offsets. The hard-hitting play not only scrutinises the Australian legal system, sexual consent laws and the burden of proof (and the impact of these upon victims), but forces contemplation of a system clearly defined by patriarchal values, through an engaging empathetic lens. And while it is piercing in its social commentary, it is also highly accessible for lawyers and non-lawyers alike. Indeed, Lee Lewis’ detailed direction provides spaces enough to support audience members in their own contemplations as to what is right and fair within a legal system that, although organic, is currently faulty in its failure of so many silenced women.

The critically lauded and awarded show has had a previous life; it was written in 2017 (before the #metoo movement) by former lawyer Miller, and it is unfortunate to reflect on how little has changed in this time with regards to the patriarchal justice system catching up to society’s needs. And while extended restrictions may have meant no usual opening night celebrations, we must be of course be thankful to still have the chance to access live theatre, especially when it is as exceptional as the powerful and provocative “Prima Facie”.

Photos c/o – Griffith Theatre Company