Exile engagement

St Mary’s in Exile (Queensland Theatre Company)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

August 27 – September 25

Brisbane may be the place we love to hate, but it comes with it’s a wonderful array of stories. And there is perhaps no story as epic as the complex conflict between Father Peter Kennedy and the institution of the Catholic Church, leading to one of the largest schisms in the church’s modern history when, in 2009, hundreds of people literally walked away from their spiritual home of St Mary’s Catholic Parish in South Brisbane. It is from this rich real-life incident that Queensland Theatre Company has created the riveting work “St Mary’s in Exile”. Bravely tacking re-evaluation of a story already told less than a decade ago, the work documents the most local story in the theatre company’s history (given that events occurred just meters away from its South Brisbane location) in a rigorous work of weighty ideas explored through author David Burton’s thoughtful, intelligent script.

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The passionate and public conflict between the diverse inner city church community and the Vatican is revisited without prejudice, beginning on the stormy night when, after refusing to resign or to fall in line with orthodoxy, an excommunicated Father Peter (Peter Marshall) is packing up to go into exile. A mysterious young homeless visitor (Ben Warren) walks out of the rain, wanting to know the story behind this unconventional holy man and what drove him to defiance, and so the story unfolds of how and why the Father Peter and his radical side-kick Father Terry Fitzpatrick (Kevin Spink) chose not to play by the ‘club rules’, changing words of the liturgy and Eucharist and allowing a statue of Buddha in the foyer. The work is an examination of Father Peter’s journey, and of those who supported and opposed him in this time. And when, in the second act, the threads come together, the result is a story at times funny, at times sad and at times challenging.

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A simple, abstract design aesthetic represents a sense of sacred space, but still allows for full focus on the show’s dense ideas and multiple timelines. Functional sliding doors facilitate swift scene changes and concrete textures contrast with natural wood furniture and religious symbolism. Vibrancy comes from its community of parishioners, reflected in both their costumes and characters.

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Under the direction of Jason Klarwein, all cast members deliver solidly with rich character portraits. Peter Marshall gives an emotionally charged performance as Father Peter, supported perfectly by Kevin Spink as the comparatively casual Father Fitzpatrick and Joss McWilliam as Archbishop John Bathersby. In his QTC debut, Ben Warren makes a memorable show of his early cat-and-mouse interaction with Father Peter before settling into steadfast confrontation of the beloved father regarding the authority of the church. Chenoa Deemal is engaging as the voice-of-reason partitioner Beth and Luisa Prosser (also in her QTC debut) is a lively, formidable Ruth. As the loyal and sensitive Joseph, Bryan Probets again proves what an asset he is to any production, taking audience members from a moving monologue expression of Corinthians 13’s commentary of faith, hope and love, to a truly hilarious Tony Abbott impression as part of the play’s Q&A re-enactment.

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As in reality, humour exists within the work’s moments of great tension, which aids audience engagement; jokes about West End gentrification and the Go Between Bridge not only emphasises the place of the story between reality and myth, but help enhance its appeal as a warm, human work. This is more than just a David and Goliath story. Indeed, its focus on community and faith allows provocation of much post-show discussion about its important, relevant themes, including answer to the question, ‘were they exiled or did they exile themselves?’

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“St Mary’s in Exile” is a powerful and compelling piece of theatre. As a world premiere of an Australian work, it is worthy of celebration in itself, however, its profound examination of grand themes cement it as a timeless telling of a local but also much larger story. Its experience is a reminder not only of the immediacy of theatre as an art from to engage audiences with contemporary issues, but also that extraordinary events are happening around us every day… even in Brisbane.

Wider Earth Wonder

The Wider Earth (Queensland Theatre Company and Dead Puppet Society)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

July 9 – August 7

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“The Wider Earth” shares the adventure story of a gentleman botanist on a grand and ambitious adventure. It is a tale we might think we know as it imagines 22-year-old Charles Darwin’s trip on the H.M.S. Beagle’s maiden voyage around the world to survey and primarily chart the coastline of South America. During the trip Darwin recorded many findings and collected a variety of specimens in discovery of evidence leading to his theory of natural selection in a time of religious-reigned science, making him memoir it as being the most important event in his life and determinate of his entire career.

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It is a remarkable tale of forests, oceans and volcanoes told in flashback recollection to his love Emma Wedgwood (Lauren Jackson) and in the hands of Dead Puppet Society, the result is faultless theatre, including a suite of over 20 astonishing animal puppets, great and small, from tiny beetles to a mighty whale.

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Unlike last year’s “Argus”, the animals do not appear in every scene, however, they play integral roles in the narrative, lending themselves so easily to the story given the number of places around the world that the voyage visited.

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From the curious creatures of the Galapagos to a personality-filled companion beagle, Polly, each one is authentic in behaviour and movement. All actors also serve as occasional puppeteers, such as when the stage is besieged by butterflies in the Amazon, a beautiful scene that belies the calamity to follow.

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This is an intimate yet epic production, deceptively simple in its staging. A rotating wooden structure gives versatile shape to hills, houses and also the ship deck, cabin and rowboat.This is supported by a wide panoramic backdrop screen onto which is projected the visuals commissioned of Brisbane artist Anna Straker and filmmaker Justin Harris. Always in motion with various landscapes, it works with narration of an older, reflective Darwin voice-over to support the story and transport audiences to locations like the Andes and the Amazon, and also with lighting to transition mood to conflict, representing the most exquisite visual imagery. Magical music also supports the visual storytelling, enchanting in its original score by acclaimed, ARIA-award-winning Australian singer-songwriter Lior and producer Tony Buchen.

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Under David Morton’s superb direction, every aspect of “The Wider Earth” is perfection. Cast members are all strong. As the young Darwin, Tom Conroy is an engaging protagonist, taking the audience from youthful curiosity to eloquent defence of his emerging philosophy in wonder of the wider earth. Anthony Standish is a powerful, hot-tempered Captain Robert Fitzroy, with whom Darwin clashes. And Thomas Larkin makes for an imposing first mate and friend to Darwin as the Scotsman John Wickham, later first magistrate of Moreton Bay, after which Brisbane’s Wickham Street is named.

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“The Wider Earth” is Dead Puppet’s Society’s biggest production to-date, three years in the making and it is an ambition magnificently realised. Indeed, the production is a gentle balance between the comfort of a familiar classic and the challenge of a cutting-edge work, providing a refreshing take on a story audiences assume to know. Its subtle presentation of the theme of evolution is thought-provoking rather than dogmatic, serving to inspire further independent reading and research as to the scientific luminary’s visionary ideas and life’s work. This is storytelling at its most charming, demanding of audience attention and absorption to the point of becoming lost in the story animal world… everything that theatre should be… making it one of Brisbane’s most definitive theatrical pieces of recent years.

Swiss sophistication

Switzerland (Queensland Theatre Company)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

May 20 – June 26

From the moment audiences enter QTC’s Bille Brown Studio, they are absorbed into the aesthetic of Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s “Switzerland”, an imagined interaction between American author Patricia Highsmith (creator of the famous serial killer character Tom Ripley) and a visiting rep from her publisher, shortly before her death.

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The encounter may be fictional, but the staging shows inspiration from her real house in Tegna, Switzerland, from show of her prized weapon collection to the plastic bag mysteriously hanging from the ceiling. Beneath a wall of framed cat photos, Highsmith (Andrea Moor) is hunched over, tapping away at a typewriter. She’s not a technology Luddite, but rather one with a inherit dislike of modern life in general. In fact, as is soon apparent, she doesn’t like much at all, including the visiting Edward Ridgeway (and it is personal).

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Ridgeway (Mathew Backer) has been sent from New York to where Highsmith lives in reclusive self-exile in the Swiss Alps, caught in her own tragedy of past-trauma torment. Knowing of her illness, her US publisher wants him to persuade her to write another, final psychologically-thrilling Ripey story. But getting her to sign the contract is no easy task. Although fiercely articulate in her own acumen, Highsmith is dismissive of intellectualism and belittlement is her default position as she attempts to bully him away. This gives the play an early orientation against which to anchor its cat-and-mouse game-play as the protagonists take audiences along a tense 80 minute ride, including an intriguing final twist that see Ridgeway reappearing as Ripley, the concrete rather than abstract chameleon character.

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Especially in their initial, biting banter, the two characters smash out line after line of quotable comments and insightful observations. There is eloquence, too, particularly in Ridgeway’s discussion of the writing process and Highsmith’s creation of a character with who she shares such intimacy (as allusion to his later appearance) and discussion of the role of tragedy in a character’s tapestry.

The shrewd, witty writing is realised by riveting performances from both Moor and Backer as their equally complicated characters. Moor is perfectly blunt as the legendary grump, sharp-tongued and unapologetic in her provocative opinions and intrusive questioning of Ridgeway’s background, yet also, later, insecure in her essential aloneness and acceptable of preference to ‘be a somebody somewhere you hate than a nobody somewhere you belong’. And Backer’s realisation of Ridgeway’s journey from nervous fan to more assertive contributor is measured enough be beguiling in its transformation. This is a performance that is fascinating to watch, filled as it is with subtleties; with even just the tilt of his head, for example, he tells so much of his character’s changing confidence.

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Although “Switzerland” is a swift, sharp and sophisticated work, under the direction of Paige Rattray, it is also, simultaneously, a slow burn of a theatre experience. It is more tightly charged than its opening humour might imply and is filled with clues as to its gripping narrative and challenging conclusion. Its naturalistic set of muted beiges as backdrop to its thrilling story, is amongst the Bille Brown Studio’s best. And its engrossing twists will have you reflecting and sharing in conversation long after you leave the theatre.

Photos c/o – Rob Maccoll

Ado anew

Much Ado About Nothing (Queensland Theatre Company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

April 23 – May 15

Compared with other Shakespearean plays, the plot of “Much Ado About Nothing” is comparatively simple and orthodox. A nobleman, Leonato (Bryan Probets), agrees to the engagement of his daughter, Hero (Ellen Bailey) to Claudio (Patrick Dwyer), a lord in the entourage of Don Pedro (Tama Matheson). But Don Pedro’s bastard brother Don John (Hayden Jones) is intent upon disrupting proceedings. Meanwhile, Leonato’s niece Beatrice (Christen O’Leary) is embroiled in a merry war of wits with another of Don Pedro’s lords, Benedick (Hugh Parker), until others trick the pair into realising their love for each other.

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On the surface level, at least, the play is commonly perceived as a frivolous comedy of nothingness, the selling point of which is usually the playful banter between Beatrice and Benedick and perhaps the comic buffoonery of Dogberry. And in Jason’s Klarwein’s first directorial foray into main-stage theatre, it is this focus that sees audience members frequently responding with riotous laugher. Indeed, rather than presenting a formal society overly concerned with outward appearances, which the play intimates, The Queensland Theatre Company production exploits the work’s word play for every comic possibility, balancing its puns, malapropisms (mistakenly using one word for another that sounds similar) and innuendo, with physical performance and slapstick, all to audience delight.

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The setting is deliberately ambiguous in a sometimes bothersome way, with original text mentions of Messina and ducats referencing Italy, alongside the use of Australian currently and mention of the Commonwealth, that jar with its Palm Springs sensibility of golf games and ladies tennis. Regardless, the indulgent lifestyle is brought to life through lusciously-lit tropical sunsets, as well as a night-time fireworks display and an Act Two tropical storm.

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Staging consists of a simple pallet of whites upon which to lay the performances, with a revolving stage. Not only does this allow for seamless transitions between inside and outside scenes, but affords plenty of places for Beatrice and Benedict to skulk about in attempt to overhear the deliberate declarations of the others regarding the pair’s supposed love for each other, allowing comedy to come from their respective reactions as much as their attempts to remain hidden, unlike other productions that have relied solely on slapstick in these sections of the play.

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The contemporary production features a number of deliberate attempts to create anew appeal to modern audiences. Tight direction has condensed the work to its core, cutting, for example, the character of Ursula, one of the gentlewomen attending on Hero. Language has been occasionally changed, for example when Beatrice compares courtship and marriage to a series of dances. And buoyancy is added to proceedings courtesy of a bit of Beyoncé and other modern musical additions. The cumulative result is a lighthearted take in which the antagonist, Don John’s motivation (or lack thereof) is murky in its privilege of Beatrice and Benedick’s banter over its primary Hero and Claudio plot.

The cast has been carefully curated to bring the play’s poetry to life. Parker is simply superb as the boisterous Benedick, scoffing of love until its experience, yet always self-aware and able to laugh at himself ‘for man is a giddy thing’. More buffoonish than swaggersome in his determination to remain a bachelor, he shows perfect comic timing, yet he also effectively conveys the character’s transition from self-conscious figure of fun to new maturity and capability for love. And he inhabits the language with a natural affinity.

Comparatively, O’Leary’s performance as Beatrice lacks a little nuance and her character some vulnerability. Her portrayal of Beatrice’s sharp-tongued wit is on-point from her first words (of mockery), so that when Benedick refers to her as ‘my lady disdain’, it rings entirely true, but she never quite captures the poignant pain of a woman whose pathos hides behind her pride. She is, however, at her best in the tragedy, when in reaction to the brutal rejection of Hero, she reveals an impressive depth of emotion in frustration of female limitations and contemplation of ‘If I were a man’, appropriate for portrayal of one of the most independent and modern of Shakespeare’s heroines.

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As the contrasting, conventional, conformist characters of Hero and Claudio, Bailey and Dwyer, do a decent job with what they are given. Although clearly lacking in confidence and, therefore, dependent upon Don Pedro, Dwyer’s Claudio comes across as less shallow and insensitive than he perhaps should, making him almost likeable in his naivety. As the passive, dutiful daughter upon whom events are played, Hero floats about with little to say throughout the play, yet Bailey’s performance presents her as more than just a fragile creature. And while Probets is appropriately patriarchal as the loving father Leonato, he appears less convincing in his wish for his defamed daughter to die rather than live dishonoured.

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Liz Buchanan and Megan Shorey as a now-female Dogbery and Verges Constable and Deputy duo deliver standout comic performances. Eager to assist, they play up all range of moods, grovelling, condescending and outraged, in their mangled language delivery. And as the bawdy Margaret, Kathryn McIntryre is another deserving audience favourite.

This is an energetic and accessible production of one of Shakespeare’s funniest and liveliest plays. Although it minimises the story’s darker strains, this is forgiveable as people will no doubt be attending with expectation of experience of the verbal sparring of its reluctant lovers. And its sympathetic chronicle of the plight of Elizabethan women compelled to acquiesce in a man’s world, gives even modern audiences an added contemplation.

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.

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“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.

Territory Truths

Bastard Territory (Queensland Theatre Company and Jute Theatre Company)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

April 6 – 16

A male voice begins from beneath the cloak of darkness, asking what identity the audience can create from just its sounds. What follows this initial challenge is a very human account of the narrator, Russell’s (Benhur Helwend) search for self, set against the story of a city’s attempts to carve out an identity. Russell is determined to be more than just a Friday night drag show (although his Act Three Bassey-esque “This Is My Life” is as impressive as it is thematically appropriate). But he is conflicted by his past. He doesn’t know who his biological father is, his mother Lois (Lauren Jackson) disappeared when he was eight and he has been raised by a conservative father Neville, who carries his own demons from his time in 1960s New Guinea, before repatriation to Darwin.

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Over three acts, and with help from era-evocative costumes and soundtracks, the audience is transported back in time to the swinging ‘60s PNG and then the bohemian days of 1975 NT, before settling in 2001, as the city sits poised for political progress. With mentions of mahjong, TAA and apricot chicken, the Tupperware world of 1960s expats is established early in Act One. Newly-married, former hostie Lois doesn’t take naturally to the colonial plantation attitude of some within her new Port Moresby home, clashing deliciously in her interactions with the spiteful Nanette (played to perfection by Suellen Maunder), a woman initially loveably stereotypical in her delight in others’ business and later passively aggressive in her manipulations. With Lois’ public servant husband Neville (Peter Norton) forcussed on his work, she joins the ‘Moresby Arts Theatre’, where her mind is not all that is stimulated.

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Fast forward a stormy post-Tracey Darwin, when the kaftans and crème de menthe are both flowing to a soundtrack of Nana Mascuri and Abba and, unbeknown to Russell, the past arrives to catch up with his mother and tear her away from his life. Then it is 2001 and Russell and his partner Alistair have transformed Russell’s childhood home into a hip, urban art gallery by day, queer cabaret venue by night, much to the chagrin of Russel’s now elderly father.

It is a complex story, directed with precision by Ian Lawson, to account for the multiple roles of four of six actors in the cast. Helwend, in particular shows remarkable versatility, equally convincing in his varied potential father roles of draft-dodging artist, fierce freedom fighter and obliging houseboy, and also especially as his almost eight-year-old narrator self in Act Two. And Jackson captures the conflict of his mother, torn as she is between her need to nurture, want towards wanderlust and dissatisfaction with her lot in life.

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The standout performance, however, comes from the Country Party Minister Neville Senior (Steven Tandy) of Act Three, cutting in his comments to his son, accepting of his party’s impending loss of long-term power and cognisant of his own mortality

Like an anecdotal reflection “Bastard Territory” is not linear in its narrative, but, like memory, the saga jumps around a little in recall of events, all while maintaining a central focus on a flawed family. Stephen Carelton has created a story that is wry with humour, yet powerful and affecting. Some of its most commanding moments come from when dialogue is delivered in unison from the younger Neville, overlooked by his aged self.

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This is what makes the show so rewarding; the fact that at the core of the confessional drama is a beautiful story about people, not just ideas, brought to life by a superb cast. As such, it is well worth the investment of time to join Russell on his journey towards discovery of his truth.

Photos c/o – Stephen Henry Photography + Film